When the first Jason Bourne movie made its debut in 2002, the gritty, down to earth and, as far as we know, realistic spy elements won over a legion of fans and generate numerous sequels and one spin off. With no ridiculous gadgets or futuristic toys to speak of, it made audiences root for the anti-hero who got his hands bloodied, was constantly beaten up but never defeated.
In fact, Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale (2005) dumped a lot of the superspy baggage that 007 was known for, and its sequels, while spectacular in their own right, borrowed generously from the Bourne films.
If the Bourne series distills its essence from the Bond films, the Jack Reacher films does the same from Bourne. Reacher (Tom Cruise) is the retired Army Major travelling across America, staying under the radar but always ready to help the forgotten who have no one else to turn to. His military skills and prowess as an investigator grants him insights, which he uses. He has no support team, no backup and is a one man army against injustice.
And that is how the movie opens, as it is set four years after the events of the 2012 original. Reacher helps catch a bunch of modern day slavers, and during the course of other investigations that assist the military, he meets Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Turner is the CO of his former unit, the 110th MP and he drifts towards Washington DC to meet her for the first time.
But when he arrives, she’s been tossed in the brig for treason and someone wants her dead. Like the original, much of Jack Reacher’s charm is actually that of Cruise. He plays the part of a skilled soldier really well, with a mix of Maverick cockiness, and Ethan Hunt resourcefulness. Oh, and there’s plenty of running in Never Go Back. It’s been said that the reason why Cruise runs in every movie is because he makes it look easy, and can do so with ease but still make it seem as if he is running for his life.
So director Edward Zwick, who was also responsible for the Cruise vehicle, The Last Samurai (2003), makes Reacher run across DC, and New Orleans, and everywhere in between. There are a few plot twists here and there, but if you’ve seen enough spy movies, you know the drill. Nothing about Never Go Back ends up surprising, but the movie itself is quite satisfying, because there are over the top action sets.
Yes, the narrative here pales to that of the original film, and the presence of a daughter, Samantha Dayton (Danika Yarosh), and possible love interest in Turner, are established from right out of nowhere but if you think about it, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series covers 20 novels and Turner actually appears in a book set before Never Go Back, the novel that this movie is based on. Smulders does her very best army impression here, but with a face and body like that, it’s hard not to wince when she goes mano e mano with a mercenary, even if she does barely beat the shit out of him.
Once you get that little nitpick out of the way, your appreciation of the movie will increase tremendously. The villain in this piece is The Hunter, played by Patrick Heusinger and very early on, it is established that this former special forces veteran is more than a match for Reacher. The rest of the movie is spent waiting for the final showdown between the two but for some reason, Zwick fumbles on the climatic battle. Maybe the fight here would be a mirror of Reacher’s fight with Charlie (Jai Courtney) from the first movie, but this is what you want to see a Jack Reacher film.
You want to watch the good guy really hand it to the bad in a one on one fight that has broken bones, damaged nerves and plenty of blood. Instead, much of the damage takes place out of sight of the audiences, and even the final money shot doesn’t have the impact that a crushed bone should have.
I remember reading, back when the first movie was in production, that Tom Cruise was derided for failing to depict Reacher as he was written in the books, as a large man with extraordinary skills. The first movie showed that audiences should not judge the character based on this, because these movie work only if someone like Cruise, and not Dwayne Johnson or Vin Diesel, steps up to take on the role. Cruise never backed down and audiences are in for an old school action movie treat.