Jack Reacher: Never Go Back should have gone back to the formula that made the original Jack Reacher work. Audiences, only familiar with the character through the first movie (and not the Lee Childs book series) may find the movie confusing, and the action secondary to other plot devices. JR1 fit the Liam “Neesons” Neeson Taken school of art: aging star kicks all asses available, names taken and dismissed, and somebody is going to get dead quick. It worked because it was what it promised: a good, old-fashioned action flick.
Directed by Edward Zwick, who teamed with Cruise for 2003’s The Last Samurai, Zwick is probably best known for his directorial work on the epic adaptation of Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall. But despite his one pairing with Cruise, and his work on an amazing film, he’s actually probably a step down from JR1’s director, Christopher McQuarrie, who has worked with Cruise on Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (writer / director), Edge of Tomorrow (writer), and Valkyrie (writer), all Cruise vehicles. Then too, he directed 2000’s The Way of the Gun and wrote 1995’s The Usual Suspects, both classics, the first unheralded (but clever and unique) and the later more universally heralded. McQuarrie’s ability to both direct and write a movie properly definitely made JR1 stand where NGB stumbles. Then too, one must assume the established relationship with the star enabled for better collaboration and ultimately, a better product.
Director: Edward Zwick
Release Date: October 21, 2016
But at the heart of things, NGB (Never go Back) fails because it does not follow the formula established by its predecessor. I was pleasantly surprised four years ago by RJ1 (Jack Reacher). It’s a relatively simple formula to follow: dramatic event. Bad guys. Reacher. Bad guys die. APPLAUSE! Easy enough, no? To be sure, there are character subtleties about Jack Reacher that make him a character that’s easy to like: he scorns authority, but believes in justice. He’s got an eerie sense of timing (or from the books, a near-perfect inner clock). He’s astute and notices details others miss: he’s a detective that’s one step ahead of the rest (maybe even two). And he’ll beat the holy hell out of those who do wrong and cross his path. What’s not to love?
NGB presents itself as more of the same, so I was hesitantly optimistic sitting down to a 10:00PM preview showing. However, NGB is not the same thing. Plot vehicle one is just what we wanted: Jack Reacher doing Reachery things. But plot vehicle two is a can of worms that just doesn’t make sense. You can’t successfully inject plot twists involving personal backstories that have yet to be discussed in a film’s first sequel; at least, not in the sequel of a movie that left the protagonists entire past shrouded in virtual mystery. The audience is not familiar enough with Reacher, his quirks and history having not been penned thoroughly enough for us to care about the sudden introduction of a major plot device like having a daughter that he never knew about.
For example, in the James Bond franchise, we don’t learn more about the central character’s orphan background until the 25th film (Skyfall). And we don’t really learn anything of major significance until the 26th film (Spectre). Until that point, the films, systemically, follow a formula that the audience understands. Surely, there are period shifts in the formula as different actors don the mantle that is Bond, James Bond, but ritualistically, the formula stands. And when directors and writers decided to grow the character’s humanity and delve into his unknown history, they did so at a point when the audience was familiar enough with their character to understand and appreciate the development. Reacher, in his second film adaptation, prevailing upon an original that did nothing to flesh out Reacher’s background, is not ready for this treatment.
Credit is due, however, for 21st Century Fox’s handling of the marketing for the film: I had not idea that this ‘twist’ was coming. Bravo. It says a lot that they could conduct their marketing campaign without giving away half (or more) of the film’s plot. Or maybe, they knew what they should be selling and were understanding the film’s inherent strengths and weaknesses better than they would admit. Why would anyone care to see Jack Reacher hugging a teenager girl in a Reacher trailer?
Then there’s the issue of Reacher’s female co-star Maj. Susan Turner, played to expected adequacy by the wonderful Cobie Smulders. It seems the Major is an honest attempt at a fleshed-out, near equal to her male-counterpart. She insists on getting in the action, even when Reacher tells her not to. Turner is given ample screentime, never kisses her co-star, and insists that she be treated as an equal. However, when push comes to shove, Reacher reasserts that he must be the one to do certain things. And in other pivotal moments, when Turner has the opportunity to be the hero, she fails, and Reacher steps in to deliver the final blow (verbal, or physical). It’s strange, because two of the film’s three leading characters are women, and the film, as well as the characters (the other played well, if not inconsistently—though let’s blame the writing for this—by Danika Yarosh: kudos for actually allowing a teenager to play a teenager), asserts their equality and ingenuity (as well as physical prowess). It’s almost as if there was a conscientious effort to allow for a feminist perspective to not only be considered, but to prevail. But then, on second thought, forget all that jazz, reacher needs to solved the final puzzle, deliver the final death threat, and break final neck of the final villain.
This is what we expect after all: for the movie to follow the formula established in the original. Gender equality should be addressed, but when it is it should be committed to fully, and ultimately, doing so here would not serve the film, its backers, or its success, and again, it’s as if those responsible for Reacher realized this and pull back on their efforts. Such indecision leaves the film weaker than it could have been as it suffers from confusion and plot elements that are not only unnecessary, but irreconcilable. And when it’s an action movie of a certain tier promising one thing, delivering not cinematography or beautifully crafted scenes of dialogue (of which there are many), nor music that scores the film beautifully, we are left wanting more, and that’s what we wanted: more.
I applaud the efforts to expand Reacher’s world and motives, and to delve into supremely paramount social issues, but I would have applauded the film staying true to its roots even more as it limps to the finish line with vaguely developed villains following formulaic and simultaneously nonsensical actions. The logic behind how things unfold in the film’s final act is completely absent. Logic must be followed within the world you are operating in, and here, it does not.
If they make a Reacher 3, and odds are they will, as Hollywood loves a good sequel, I hope they go back to the basics—especially because, after all that, they seem to undo the unknown daughter’s legitimacy and call into question whether or not she’ll play a role again (and if she ever should have in the first place).