Much of the hoopla surrounding "Jack Reacher," the first adaptation of the insanely popular series of Lee Child-penned thrillers, has had to do with the casting of the diminutive Tom Cruise in the title role. As described in the novels, Reacher is, physically speaking, a brute – close-cropped blonde hair, nearly seven-feet tall, well over 200 pounds. In one of the novels he literally crushes a dude's skull with his bare hands. By comparison, Tom Cruise could fit snugly into a standard-sized teacup, is slimmer than an iPhone 5, and has muddy brown hair. But one of the more miraculous things about "Jack Reacher," an altogether entertaining and completely surprising pulp romp, is how Cruise embodies the Reacher character in the way he moves, the way he glances, and the way he talks (or doesn't talk). It doesn't matter that Tom Cruise is the tiny, snuggly version of Jack Reacher. He is still, very much, Jack Reacher.
The film opens, somewhat uncomfortably given recent events, with a sniper attack on a random group of people in Pittsburgh. (The discomfort levels skyrocket when there is a shot of him lining up a small child in his crosshairs.) After an unstable former military sniper is brought in and charged with the crimes, he makes one request: bring in Jack Reacher. Reacher is a former military policeman who now lives as a drifter, almost entirely off the grid – his sole possessions are his ATM card, a travel-sized toothbrush, and the clothes on his back. By the time Reacher makes it to Pittsburgh, the sniper has already been brutalized by fellow inmates and lies in a coma. Although Reacher can't question the sniper, he is convinced of his guilt (Reacher brought him in for killing some military contractors overseas years earlier), but sticks around anyway, compelled by his true north-moral compass.
The sniper's public defender, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike, somewhat underwhelming), wants to hire Reacher to help with the case – she understands that he is a crack investigator and wants to know what he turns up, even if it implicitly involves her father, the DA (Richard Jenkins). Reacher, too, comes under fire from the case's lead investigator, Emerson (David Oyelowo), who doesn't like this drifter interfering with his case, even if he is "working" for the younger Rodin.
"Jack Reacher"'s plot is fairly inconsequential, with an overtly complicated conspiracy that involves a "Chinatown"-style land grab and a villain known as The Zec (played, amazingly, by Werner Herzog), who, as a Siberian prisoner, was forced to chew off all but two of his fingers, to stop the onset of frostbite. Ick. The movie does have a wonderful sense of mood and a fairly luxurious pace, which for once doesn't hinder the forward momentum of its pulpy dime-store-novel plot but instead gives it some much-needed room to establish atmosphere and character. Along the way there are some truly incredible action movie beats, including a car chase that is filmed in long, unbroken cuts that make it seem like Tom Cruise is actually piloting his vintage muscle car through the rain-slicked streets of Pittsburgh (because he was), but "Jack Reacher" is much more of a thriller than a brawny action piece.
As written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, the screenwriter who made a splash with Bryan Singer's "The Usual Suspects" and previously wrote and directed the down-and-dirty crime movie "The Way of the Gun," "Jack Reacher" (both the character and the movie) is a throwback – to a time when heroes didn't dress up in sparkly tights and fly through the air. McQuarrie both wrote and directed the film economically; there aren't any grand speeches or mouthfuls of exposition, and there are a number of lengthy sequences that are edited together wordlessly, putting an emphasis on the actual images (stark, well-composed) that seems positively out of place amongst the ADD, shaky cam style that reigns supreme amongst today's action filmmakers. A lot of times, "Jack Reacher" feels like an early John McTiernan film, with its silky camerawork (look at those lens flares!) and a lead who is vulnerable and human, which might be its biggest distinction in the age of the cinematic superhero.
Cruise embodies Jack Reacher fully – the way he walks, the way he talks (he nails both the smart-ass line delivery and the taciturn moments when Reacher would rather chew glass than speak), the way he looks at a crime scene or piece of evidence and soaks it all in. (At one point, investigator Emerson is shocked to learn that Reacher never writes anything down. He doesn't have to.) Reacher, in the books, is a physically imposing force; Cruise isn't blessed with that. So he's got to establish Reacher's don't-fuck-with-me-ness in a different way. And he does it, marvelously. By the time the movie reaches its climax (with some help from Robert Duvall as a cantankerous gun-range owner – yes!), Cruise has fully conveyed his inner Reacher-ness, brilliantly and dangerously. The character may have a moral code that is unwavering, but that doesn't mean he's unwilling to get his hands dirty.
"Jack Reacher" is ultimately a "pilot movie" to a lengthy franchise, a series in which Reacher crisscrosses the country righting wrongs and bedding babes and never owning his own house, and that is more than okay with us. (The movie ends in a triumphantly kick-ass moment that is designed to stoke audience interest in futher adventures). In terms of pure pop entertainment value, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more smartly constructed, beautifully shot, pulse-pounding movie this holiday season. Cruise's Reacher might be small, but he is mighty. [B+]