Every movie star should have a backup franchise — just in case.
Chris Pratt, for instance, has Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy. Tom Hanks has the Da Vinci Code series and playing heroic real-life captains in films named for them, e.g. Sully, Captain Phillips. For Tom Cruise it’s Mission: Impossible — five films and three billion dollars at the box office — and, bringing way up the rear, Jack Reacher.
Written and directed by Chris McQuarrie, the first in the Jack Reacher series was a well-executed, mid-range actioner with a certain amount of charm and humour. In the case of this follow-up, though, the tediously titled Never Go Back, you’ve got to wonder, why this particular franchise? While working with roughly the same budget as its predecessor — $60 million dollars — the film feels like a case of diminished returns.
Directed by The Last Samurai’s Edward Zwick — a reliable journeyman presumably here on Cruise’s say-so — and based on the eighteenth book in Lee Childs’ series — as the first was, bizarrely, on the eighth — the threadbare plot sees ex-military drifter Reacher return to his former base in Washington DC for a date with Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), whom he’s ever only spoken with over the phone.
Instead, Reacher discovers Turner has been arrested for treason. Shortly after, he himself is framed for murder and must go on the run with Turner and Sam (Danika Yarosh), a mixed-up fifteen-year-old girl who, Reacher has recently discovered, may well be his daughter.
While ostensibly involving ruthless Private Military Contractors — like regular soldiers only driven by freed, so it’s okay to really hurt them — and illegal weapons dealing in Afghanistan, a conflict that already dated, Never Go Back strips away the frills and most of the thrills for close-quarters action and predictable character beats that feel, at best, perfunctory; at worst, like a contractual obligation.
Zwick keeps the camera in close, ratcheting up the sound design — the thud of knuckles on flesh, lots of yelling — to reinforce that yep, this shit really hurts, but this is pay-day level competency from all involved, nothing more. Even Cruise’s authentic Movie-Star Charisma™ is on low wattage here. If it wasn’t for his presence, and all the location shooting, this could be made for TV — Washington and New Orleans look lovely, btw; open and clean, there’s the definite suggestion of tax breaks.
Where then did the budget go? Certainly not on the rest of the cast. Smulders acquits herself well as Cruise’s humourless companion, but it’s very much a sidekick role; despite a bit of pro-feminist lip service. Sam is alternately a pragmatic would-be delinquent and a naïve mixed-up kid as the plot requires. Robert Knepper smarms and seethes thanklessly as the bit-part big bad and Patrick Heusinger plays catchup as hyper-competent Psycho Assassin 1, otherwise known only as The Hunter, but there’s no one the caliber of Werner Herzog or even, dare I say, Jai Courtney.
Cruise can visit as many diners has he wants — three here — and lay efficient smack-downs on countless anonymous henchmen, deliver steely threats and diligently carry them out — there are a further nineteen books to choose from — but, until the franchise figures out what it is it has to offer beyond its lead, I, for one, am unlikely to return to it.