Halfway through Jack Reacher comes a prolonged car chase that appears to use little to no CGI, with Tom Cruise clearly doing some of the driving himself. Director Christopher McQuarrie lets the scene play out without a musical score, and the sequence is so well shot and edited that you are always aware of where each vehicle is in relation to the other as they barrel through the streets of Pittsburgh. There are no impossible stunts, no gravity-defying feats, no overturned fruit carts or smashed panes of glass. The sequence is just an old-school, furious car chase, and it’s a thrill to watch.
That’s one of the few bits of prolonged action in Jack Reacher, the first in an intended series based on Lee Child’s popular novels about a former military police officer. On the page, the character was six-foot-five, had blond hair, blue eyes and the physique of a bodybuilder. On the screen, he looks like Cruise, who shares none of those attributes. But this is a detective story — a rather complicated one — and Cruise marches through it in locked-jaw, intense-stare mode. He makes you believe in Reacher’s uncanny ability to memorize details, find clues, discover secrets and even anticipate what other people are thinking.
Reacher is so good at everything he does, and Cruise plays him in such a robotic manner, that the movie becomes a bit of a bore: The hero is practically omnipotent. There’s a moment in the movie when two men with bats sneak up behind an unarmed Reacher and whack him in the back of the head, knocking him inside a tiny bathroom, and he still manages to beat them both up without a scratch. Jack Reacher is filled with scenes in which Cruise lays out elaborate conspiracy theories to an astonished detective (David Oyelowo), who wonders how this guy knows so much or a bewildered lawyer (Rosamund Pike), who often says things like “That’s crazy!” before realizing Reacher was right. He’s always right.
In an unfortunate coincidence, Jack Reacher opens with a mass shooting in which a gunman kills five people, and the movie is required to show us the sequence again and again, from different angles, as the investigators explore the case. The tragic timeliness is distracting. The film also goes on too long: Once Reacher has figured out the truth, there’s still a half-hour of movie left, most of it set at a rock quarry where gunfights and punches continue long after you’re ready to go home.
And although the central mystery is undeniably intriguing, McQuarrie undercuts himself by casting Werner Herzog as a one-eyed villain so tough he once chewed off his own fingers and Robert Duvall as the joker-grandpa owner of a shooting range. Their characters are unintentionally funny, but they also underscore how empty Cruise’s performance is. Reacher is a mysterious drifter, and Cruise plays him as a cipher. He doesn’t let us in. Jack Reacher has a compelling story hook and a realistic, street-savvy vibe. What the movie sorely needs is a more intriguing detective — a hero human enough to sometimes make mistakes.
Cast: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo, Werner Herzog, Jai Courtney, Robert Duvall.
Writer-director: Christopher McQuarrie. Based on the novel “One Shot” by Lee Child.
Producers: Tom Cruise, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 130 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, adult themes.Opens Friday Dec. 21 at area theaters.