Tom Cruise (Mission Impossible) brings a blunt edge to the title hero of Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher, a gripping old-school crime thriller about a five-person homicide, and the brilliant military investigator tasked with bringing its orchestrator’s to justice. Adapted from Lee Child’s One Shot – the ninth book in his popular Jack Reacher series– the film begins with one of the best directed sequences of the year, before spinning out a tangled web of hardboiled intrigue, bone-shattering action and ambiguous political philosophy. And at the centre of it all, a compelling protagonist, one who’ll stop at nothing to uncover the truth.
Although he’s better known as the Oscar winning writer of The Usual Suspects than as the director of 2000’s The Way of the Gun, it is McQuarrie’s immaculate visual craftsman that so effectively draws us in during the film’s wordless opening sequence. As the credits roles over the full-blooded symphonics of Joe Kraemer’s excellent orchestral score, a lone rifleman drives through the city of Pittsburgh before coming to rest in a parking garage and setting his sights on a footpath on the other side of the river. Dread and discomfort gnaw at the pit of your stomach as McQuarrie forces us to peer through the scope, in a long unbroken take, as the killer nonchalantly shifts his sights from one passerby to the next, lining up his targets and waiting for the moment to fire.
In the end, the shooter takes six shots and ends five innocent lives. The police investigation quickly leads to the door of James Barr (Joseph Sikora; Safe), an anti-social army sniper who previously murdered four American soldiers while serving in Iraq, only to get off on a military technicality. This time though, the evidence against him seems overwhelming, with District Attorney Rodin (Richard Jenkins; Killing Them Softly) intent on pursuing the death penalty. But when asked to sign a confession, the accused instead writes three words: “Get Jack Reacher”.
A highly trained, highly decorated former army cop who lives off the grid, is an expert in armed and unarmed combat, boasts a photographic memory and is never short of a badass one-liner, Reacher, we soon learn, is the kind of impossibly cool character who could never exist in real life. Within mere minutes of arriving in town he’s running rings around the other so-called investigators, including Police Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo; The Paperboy) and Barr’s own defence attorney (Rosamund Pike; Johnny English Reborn). But Cruise has the charisma and the intensity to sell the implausible role, silencing any briefly held doubts with that trademark glare– or a knee to a scumbag’s stomach.
Plus, while Reacher himself may seem a little too good to be true, trail he uncovers feels more or less grounded in reality. As he delves the city’s dank criminal underworld and starts to suspect that Barr has been set up, McQuarrie ensures that the clues remain credible, never falling victim to the logic gaps or meaningless techno-babble that helped derail the second half of Skyfall. And speaking of 007, the villain here could go toe-to-toe with any of Bond’s best baddies – celebrated German filmmaker Werner Herzog (Rescue Dawn, Cave of Forgotten Dreams)taking a rare acting job as the criminal mastermind at the centre of the conspiracy, a horrifically scared European known only as “The Zec”.
Likewise, the action, when it comes, is low-key and believable. Punches seem like they actually hurt, while a cat-and-mouse car chase is wonderfully reminiscent of last year’s masterful Drive. Moreover, the un-stylised quality of the violence greatly increases its impact, both in action scenes and in grimmer moments such as the opening. In an era where mass shootings are far from infrequent, such a sequence could have been tactlessly overwrought or, alternatively, sanitised for fear of being offensive. But McQuarrie walks the line perfectly, delivering a scene that is tense and devastating but never grotesque.
Additionally, while so many Hollywood action films descend brainlessly into jingoism and bloodthirsty military fetishism, McQuarrie keeps Reacher refreshingly even-handed. There’s a respect here for the US armed forces that none-the-less refuses to shy away from the problems of military culture. Similarly, while Reacher’s vigilante attitude recalls classic right-cycle heroes like Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, Rosamund Pike’s character is a strong proponent of liberalism, arguing staunchly against capital punishment in spite of her client’s alleged crimes. Ultimately, McQuarrie doesn’t throw himself on either side of the moral-political spectrum, instead letting his characters – and his audience – consider these issues for themselves.
Jack Reacher hits theatres in Australia on January 3. Check out our interview with writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, here.