The Tentative Enlightenment of ‘Jack Reacher: Never Go Back’

Tom Cruise‘s “Jack Reacher” films are strange beasts. First of all, the diminutive Cruise is playing a character who is almost a foot taller than him in Lee Child’s novels. Then there’s the matter of tone: Jack Reacher is one of the darkest and most violent characters that Cruise has ever played. He’s the “good guy,” but only marginally. It’s at odds with the persona Cruise has built up throughout his career. But the strange thing is that the movie works despite those factors. “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is full of dumb action movie moments, but it manages to correct the problems with the first film and turn itself into a taut action thriller.

The first “Jack Reacher” film is difficult to classify. It’s particularly dark, opening with a mass shooting and having the misfortune to be released around the time of the Sandy Hook massacre. The movie is more of a detective story than an action thriller. And then there’s the title character, who is loathsome in many respects. He’s a misogynist who insults women and has little concern for their safety. He’s also a bully who starts fights with unsuspecting dupes and doesn’t mind killing them for minor offenses. Werner Herzog plays a deliciously hammy villain, but he’s only slightly viler than Cruise’s Reacher.

“Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” streamlines the first film and tries to atone for Reacher’s misogyny and inhumanity. Reacher is still living the life of a vagabond, hitchhiking across the country and staying in seedy motels, but he’s begun to have occasional phone calls with Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who has taken over his old job with the military. He has been helping her solve crimes and finally makes his way to Washington, D.C. to meet her, only to find that she has been arrested on espionage charges. Of course, Reacher breaks her out of prison and they embark on a convoluted quest to find out who framed her, all while being trailed by a mysterious assassin (Patrick Heusinger).

Smulders has honed her skills as an action star in the last few Marvel films, and here she plays as the equal to Cruise. He may have much of the final fight sequence to himself, but Smulders always plays an essential when it comes to the action, rather than a damsel in distress. She’s also someone that Reacher can treat like an equal, rather than adopt the patronizing tone he used with Rosamund Pike in the first film.

Reacher is introduced to Samantha (Danika Yarosh), who claims to be his daughter, in a further attempt to humanize him. It’s not clear if she actually is his daughter (he can’t remember who her mother is), but their personalities are similar enough that he develops some affection for her. It’s not a relationship worth much investment, though; Yarosh would have been wise to take more of a naturalistic approach to her role, but instead she ratchets it up. Samantha is filled to the gills with teenage angst, and the constant conflicts with her father figure become tiresome after a while.

The added humanity of this newer, more social Reacher adds to Cruise’s performance considerably. Cruise has a reputation for not being a particularly good actor, but that’s usually more a critique of the kind of films he stars in rather than the performances themselves. We’re never told exactly why Reacher refuses to rejoin society, but Cruise does an effective job of playing someone who’s only comfortable on the margins of society. Reacher is still a deplorable person who takes pleasure in the pain of his enemies, but the film balances that out with his affections for Susan and Samantha.

Edward Zwick, who took over the franchise from original director Christopher McQuarrie, has turned this new entry into a more traditional action film, but also lightened it up and added a dose of humor. “Never Go Back” isn’t as nicely composed as the original film, but it benefits from more sunlight and stronger chemistry between its actors.

“Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is refreshing because of how fun it is — it steers clear of the oppressive darkness that’s popular in contemporary action films. It’s a rare popcorn flick that’s made with some skill. Tom Cruise may have been miscast in the first film, but now he truly fits the character.

Watch the trailer below:

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