Less of a movie than it is a monotonous two-hour supercut of Tom Cruise elbowing people in the face, “Jack Reacher: Never Stop Never Reaching” (editor’s note: not the actual title) is a relentlessly generic star vehicle that’s been stripped down to nothing but an old engine and a rusty chassis. The jalopy still runs, of course — and not just because Cruise is now blatantly using Hollywood to subsidize his cardio routine — but it can be a pretty bumpy ride when you road-test it without luxuries like a coherent plot, compelling set pieces, or any clear reason to exist.
Adapted from the 18th novel in Lee Childs’ seemingly endless series of disposable paperback thrillers (and boy does it feel like it), “Never Go Back” is technically a sequel to 2012’s “Jack Reacher,” but the only thing they have in common are a brand, an icon, and a penchant for the practical, bare-knuckled carnage that action cinema of the digital age has largely retired in favor of plastic cartoon violence. Christopher McQuarrie has been replaced in the director’s chair by Ed “The Last Samurai” Zwick, who has fittingly re-teamed with Cruise for a movie about a modern-day ronin who drifts across the country in search of fresh necks to break. Dishonorably discharged from his position as a Major in the United States Army Military Police Corps, Reacher has reinvented himself as a blue-collar Jason Bourne who has no trouble remembering who he is and what he wants (spoiler alert: He wants to break necks).
Ostensibly a story about how difficult it is for soldiers to readjust to the civilian world, “Never Go Back” begins with Reacher phone-stalking Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), the woman who’s inherited his old job at the USAMPC. Reacher likes the sound of her voice or something, and — with no more necks to break in his immediate vicinity — he decides to hitchhike to D.C. and doorstop her at her government office, because that’s how women like to be wooed by quasi-mythical killing machines who live off the grid and always seem to leave a pile of bodies in their wake. For what it’s worth, Reacher is right to think they might have a connection, as Susan is a hard-bodied hard-ass who can be every bit as intense as her male colleagues, and has surely had to be in order to endure years of everyday sexism.
But when Reacher shows up at Susan’s door, he learns that she’s been thrown into military prison on accusations of espionage (something about Afghanistan; it really doesn’t matter). Reacher, sensing a golden opportunity to murder some anonymous henchmen, gets himself arrested, breaks Susan out of jail, and begins a mission to prove her innocence by identifying the bad guys. There’s also some business about a blonde tween named Samantha (Danika Yarosh) who might be Reacher’s long-lost daughter, and threatens to tie an anchor around the perpetual wanderer. Samantha creates a surrogate family between Susan and Reacher, leading to a few mildly amusing scenes once the trio follow a lead down south and the film settles into New Orleans, but the character only exists to fix the fundamental problem of the “Jack Reacher” franchise: The stories are never about him — he’s always just passing through, trying to fix someone else’s problem. At the end of the day, the most interesting thing about Samantha is that she sounds exactly like Anna Paquin — it’s uncanny.
The action here isn’t enough to return the focus to Reacher, as Zwick fails to arrange any memorable sequences for his hero to punch his way through — a climactic fight set against the Big Easy’s Krewe of Boo parade is as close as he gets, but it can’t help but feel like a pale imitation of the majestic cold open from “Spectre.” Still, it’s refreshing to see a film of this kind so emphatically privilege bone-crunching fisticuffs over the usual ejaculations of gunfire (Reacher doesn’t actually fire a gun for over an hour). And sometimes, when Zwick is feeling extra frisky, we’re even treated to Reacher-Vision™, a warped first-person mode in which our hero has a precognitive vision of all the bones he’s about to snap.
Of course, it would be so much more satisfying if Reacher came across anyone with bones worth snapping. Remember how much fun it was when Werner Herzog showed up in the first one as a heavily accented gang leader who only survived his time in the Soviet Gulag by eating his own fingers or something? The mind reels when trying to imagine what other major directors could moonlight as scenery-chewing monsters: David Cronenberg as the head of a human trafficking ring? Terry Gilliam as the general of a rogue militia that uses blood diamonds to fund its nuclear ambitions? Lars von Trier as himself? No, the villain in “Never Go Back” is played by Patrick Heusinger, who filmgoers might recognize as the investment banker boyfriend from “Frances Ha.” Scary. His character doesn’t have a backstory or even a name (the credits refer to him as “The Hunter”), only a black leather jacket and some well-maintained scruff.
Truth be told, Philip Seymour Hoffman was the only actor who’s ever been able to make one of Cruise’s humanoid action figures seem genuinely vulnerable, but if Heusinger’s bargain-bin baddie were any more boring he could be be the villain of a Marvel movie. It’s an especially egregious problem because so much of the film harkens back to the golden age of psychotic action movie antagonists: the ’90s. Not only does someone say the word “Dickhead,” not only do Reacher and Susan visit an internet cafe, but — wait for it — one of The Hunter’s chief henchmen have bleached blond hair. It’s enough to conjure memories of John Malkovich in “Con Air.” Gary Oldman in “The Professional.” John Travolta and Nicolas Cage in “Face/Off.” Those were the days, the days when the characters were too weird (and the stakes were too high) for films like this to be confused for a very special episode of “NCIS.”
As it stands, Cruise’s undeniable star power is all that keeps “Never Go Back” from feeling like it came off a studio assembly line, though you’ll still spend most of the movie wondering if you’ve been swindled into watching a movie about Ethan Hunt’s luddite twin brother. In fact, Jack Reacher’s only compelling antagonist might be the actor who plays him. Cruise is so eminently watchable that, on the strength of centrifugal force alone, he can get away with playing a type instead of a character. But we know that he’s capable of running faster, of climbing higher, and of putting his intensity to use in more exciting ways — Jack Reacher is only slowing him down.
“Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” opens in theaters on Friday, October 21st.