Too mean for its modest pleasures, Jack Reacher exceeds its grasp — but man, that villain! 

Werner Herzog, International Man of Mystery

Werner Herzog, International Man of Mystery

Jack Reacher opens with a horrific scene of carnage, as a sniper takes out a number of random unsuspecting civilians in downtown Pittsburgh. It's one that many will find even more troubling in the wake of the recent Newtown shootings. But give Christopher McQuarrie's film some credit: The scene is portrayed with an appropriate sense of horror at its monstrosity. The chill you'll feel going up your spine and the uncomfortable silence in the theater feel earned, not just incidental.

The terror of the scene, however, doesn't quite balance out with the rest of the story, a mostly enjoyable thriller adapted from Lee Child's novel One Shot. A surprisingly understated Tom Cruise plays Reacher, a mysterious, brilliant drifter-slash-private-eye who is called on to investigate the killings. Somewhat reluctantly, he agrees to help dig into the case for the accused sniper's defense attorney (a rather unfortunately over-the-top Rosamund Pike, who appears to have lost the ability to blink). Sure enough, what appeared to be an open-and-shut murder conviction starts to look a bit dodgy, especially once some mysterious people want Reacher dead or out of town.

That's when Reacher starts to think he's on the right track. Alas, it's also when the film starts to go off the rails. For much of its running time, Jack Reacher works as an effective, almost nostalgically modest mystery-thriller, and we get a kick out of the slow, patient buildup of facts and evidence. But once the real bad guys are revealed, led by a deliciously creepy Werner Herzog (playing a man who once chewed off his own fingers to survive a Russian prison camp!), the movie becomes more concerned with action and less with suspense. More importantly, these villains are portrayed as so diabolical — given that opening sniper scene and Herzog's whole "you cannot know the horrors I've seen" shtick — that their strangely dinky Ultimate Plan seems out of proportion with the rest of the movie.

But wait, you might say, that's just a McGuffin! And McGuffins don't need to make sense, do they? Well, yes and no. Named after Alfred Hitchcock's infamous term for a fairly disposable and not-particularly-thought-through plot motivator, this defense hinges on the relative inconsequentiality of the objects and/or goals that movie villains strive after.  McGuffins worked well in Cold War thrillers, for example, where the villains were fairly standard and workaday: Some Soviet spy was after a hidden bit of microfiche, and it was our hero's duty to stop him, etc.

It's hard, however, to claim the McGuffin Defense when you make your villains so unconscionably evil, as Jack Reacher does. As you watch, you can't shake the sense that a modest, effective little tale has been taken over by a game of corrosive one-upmanship. Jack Reacher is a fun movie that's occasionally crippled by its own ambition to be badass.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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