“Somewhere less than forty, about six feet five, huge, maybe two-twenty [pounds], blue eyes, thinning fair hair.” To be fair, bestselling author Lee Child’s description of former Military Police investigator Jack Reacher doesn’t sound much like Tom Cruise, as fans of the novels were quick to point out when the casting was announced. But does that really matter? Do any of the actors who have portrayed James Bond, Jack Ryan or Jason Bourne look like their literary counterparts? More likely, the sniping was due to a condition known as Generalized Anti-Tom Cruise Syndrome, and in this case, the antipathy was misplaced: the real question should have been, is the first screen outing for Lee Child’s antihero any good? To which the answer is a pretty resounding affirmative.
Actor-producer Cruise and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, whose name cannot contractually appear in print without the accompanying phrase “Oscar winning screenwriter of The Usual Suspects,” chose wisely when deciding which of the seventeen extant Reacher books to adapt; “One Shot,” the ninth in the series, has a cracking story, which kicks off with a meticulously-crafted scene in which a sniper fires six shots from a parking garage into a public park, killing five people, apparently at random, and leaving a sixth bullet for authorities to find. The bullet is matched to a former Army sniper, James Barr, who is promptly arrested and charged, with more than enough evidence to convict him. Before fellow prisoners put him in a coma, Barr scrawls three words on a pad: “Get Jack Reacher.” While lead detective Emerson (David Oyelowo), district attorney A.A. Rodin (Richard Jenkins) and his daughter Helen (Rosamund Pike), Barr’s defence attorney, all try to track down the mysterious Mr Reacher – who has been ‘off the grid’ since mustering out of the Army several years earlier – Jack surprises them all by walking into their respective offices, having heard about the shooting on the news, and deciding the various interested parties to lend his knowledge of Barr’s past – just not in the way they expect.
If it sounds as though the above synopsis gives the game away, rest assured that this pretty much only covers the first ten minutes of the two-hour film, for which McQuarrie’s screenplay – easily his best since his breakthrough – expertly distills Childs’ story, sacrificing a few supporting characters for the sake of momentum. Only in one respect does it seem that McQuarrie, in trimming the fat, has lost some of the meat, and that is in respect of ‘The Zec’, the novel’s truly terrifying chief villain. Tapping sinewy, serpent-voiced director Werner Herzog for the role was an inspired piece of casting, and it’s a great pity he is given only a few screen minutes in which to make his sinister presence felt – although one of his scenes contains an idea so grotesque even Hannibal Lecter might shudder. Newcomer Jai Courtney, so wasted in A Good Day to Die Hard, is a more brutish, but no less cold-blooded presence as The Zec’s henchman.
There is much else to enjoy: taking his cue from top-drawer ‘70s action films, McQuarrie takes care to surround his star with memorable and well-cast supporting characters, and give the audience a number of superb set-pieces – including a three-way street brawl worthy of Jason Bourne’s best fight scenes, and one of the most visceral car chases in recent memory – without ever losing the forward momentum, and almost always capturing the underlying, albeit subtle humor buried in Childs’ spare prose. From beginning to end, McQuarrie directs with the kind of impregnable confidence that Martin Campbell and Sam Mendes brought to their respective Bond films, and even if Cruise lacks Reacher’s physical presence, he’s every inch the movie star, and nails the character in every other respect.
One area in which McQuarrie captures the spirit of the Reacher novels is more abstract: when the story’s twists and turns are finally exposed, and all the plot machinations have delivered on the promise of the set-up, it’s clear that, as with the best action thrillers (Get Carter and The French Connection come to mind), it’s the characters and set-pieces that make the film truly memorable. Overall, it’s a solidly entertaining thriller which, for all its leading man’s diminutive stature, stands head and shoulders above its contemporaries. ★★★★