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Review: ‘Jack Reacher: Never Go Back’ Finds Tom Cruise Running Through The Motions

It's cool that Cruise is trying to sustain the neck-breaking spirit of classic action movies, but this generic sequel is a flat-footed mess.

Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

“Jack Reacher: Never Go Back”

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.

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher in Never Go Back

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

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.

READ MORE: The 10 Best (And 5 Worst) Tom Cruise Performances

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.

Grade: C-

“Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” opens in theaters on Friday, October 21st.

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Comments

Stefano De La Cuesta

That’s unfortunate. I guess I and alot of folks give extra undue brownie points to the 1st movie that came out in 2012 because it was more than a little refreshing to see practical & tactile action in a mainstream, wide release (and modestly budgeted) movie. It seems my suspicions were correct in that trading in writer/director Christopher McQuarrie for Ed Zwick and lord only knows who wrote this was one of the worst moves you could make for such a meat & potatoes project/franchise.

Leon Raymond Mitchell

Now I got to go see it cause Indiewire which Hates Black films and Black people and people of color also is 9 out of 11 times wrong each time they review a film with a review like this. the reviews are personal so now I know I got to go and see it

    Jake

    Jack Reacher is a black film??

May West

David Ehrlich, thanks for taking the time to give such a detailed an honest (personal)opinion. Tom Cruise’s energy and (on screen) magnetism never fails. I haven’t watched the movie, (only the trailer) but if Jack Reacher 2 fails, don’t blame it on Tom. The screenplay and director have failed him. Tom has shown he always gives 100% and more to his every role. Perhaps it’s time he looks at some really character driven roles instead and leave behind the (high impact) action and the fluff. He surely can deliver so much more as was proven in 4th of July.

Travis

Speaking of nostalgia. . . I long for the days when reviews on this site were genuine engagements with the movies being reviewed rather than veiled occasions for recently minted film critics to wax eloquent, hone their sarcasm, or otherwise promote themselves and their own agendas. I realize that movies one doesn’t like tempt one to indulge in critical hyperbole and over-the-top attacks. And that was true even before social media made it a default response. But even though Roger Ebert often watched and reviewed movies he didn’t like, he always managed to maintain a certain self-effacing humility even in the face of bad art, and his readers always sensed in his musings an appreciation for the challenges involved in even pedestrian movie-making. The result was a body of work that included many harsh reviews, but never flippant, dismissive reviews. Such reviews, increasing common on Roger’s site today, are not unlike a Jack Reacher elbow to the face. Yes, we want to know when you think a movie is poorly conceived or executed. But those of us who love film want even critical reviews to take film seriously enough to exercise a little charity and restraint. Is that to much to expect?

Nick A

As soon as I read the name Jack Reacher: Never Stop Reaching, I knew that this is the only title I will remember or refer to this movie to from now on. Brilliant and concise.

Jack

Very good movie. Tom Cruise when he is best. Great cast all around.

    Ken

    You folks are serious??? Jack Reacher is 6’5″ 250ish pounds, and Tomassina Cruise is Diminuitive little elf. Regardless of his “spectacular” film career is is and will never be a Jack Reacher. The franchise would be much better served finding an actor worthy of stepping into Reacher’s shoes, and the long time book fans would be flocking to the theatres, instead of waiting for the TV showings.

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