By SEAN DALY
Times Staff Writer
How cool is the titular tough guy in Jack Reacher? Dude brings a knife to an AK-47 fight and still beats the bad guys — with style. The former military cop and current drifter has more bruised knuckles than Clint Eastwood, more swell one-liners than Bruce Willis barefootin' in a skyscraper. No offense to Hulk & Co., but this avenger knocks heads without any CGI or superheroic help.
Wow, I seriously didn't see this one coming. And neither will you, although the recipe for action-movie success is certainly there. Say what you will about Tom Cruise, who plays Reacher like a smirking fist, but as an actor, the man invests, you know? And writer-director Christopher McQuarrie is a fanboy icon, the Oscar-winning scribe behind The Usual Suspects, a careful filmmaker generous with twists, dialogue and macho fun.
The sheer did-that-just-happen thrill of seeing Jack Reacher — which shape-shifts from crime procedural to Steve McQueen car chase to dance with a Keyser Soze-type devil — is akin to the geeky joy of watching Die Hard for the first time. Which is not to say Cruise's potential new franchise, based on Lee Child's bestselling novels, is a slam-dunk. Fans of the books are bemoaning the casting; Reacher on the pages is brawnier, slower, taller than Cruise. Then there's the actor's much-publicized personal life. Sigh.
But it's hard to fault the entertainment onscreen, which presents its plot in tight, watch-closely puzzle pieces: A former military sniper named Barr is arrested after an attack on the Pittsburgh waterfront. (Fair warning: In light of the Connecticut tragedy, some viewers may find the opening scene hard to watch.) As he's wont to do, Reacher mysteriously materializes soon after, for his own shadowy reasons. McQuarrie has no desire to rush the tale, although Reacher is always two steps ahead of you and everyone else, Sherlock Holmes with the skills to beat down five bar thugs.
Milquetoast Rosamund Pike, the movie's weakest link, is Barr's frazzled defender; Richard Jenkins, who seems a little uninspired here, is her father and the D.A. going up against her in what he thinks is an open-shut case. It's CSI on steroids — until it turns almost supernatural, with oddball director Werner Herzog cast as a shadowy figure with a thing for gnawing off fingers, his own and others. Oh yeah, it gets weird, and even though Cruise is ultimately unbeatable — he gets exasperated, but not for long — there's always the looming threat of oh-no disaster. That's a mark of sharp writing and clever directing; McQuarrie excels at both.
If it sounds like I'm vague on plot points, well, that's for your protection. This thing zigs when you think it's going to zag, and even the car chase is built differently: Cruise bolts through Pittsburgh in a vintage Camaro, chasing psychos while being chased by cops who think he's a psycho, which he might have a touch of. The action scenes always make sense, and they're all refreshingly low-tech. If you're expecting Ethan Hunt's gadgets from Mission: Impossible, don't bother.
Reacher's finale is a shoot-'em-up, beat-'em-up doozy, and if you think McQuarrie and Cruise will pull their punches in some sort of ultimate moral statement, think again. After all, there's a reason Reacher can't stay in any one place for too long. "What if I need you? How will I find you?" someone pleads in the film's final frame. That sounds a lot like Batman to me, and that's about right. Here's hoping Cruise's dark knight visits us again, too.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.