‘Jack Reacher: Never Go Back’ is the Vanilla Action Sequel No One Asked For

They might as well have just called it 'Tom Cruise Punching People: The Movie.'

The original Jack Reacher wasn’t a particularly good movie – it verges on self-parody without making the leap, it features a woefully miscast Tom Cruise, and its initial release was haunted by its echoes of the recent Newtown shootings. But at least it was a weird movie, thanks to writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s corkscrew tone shifts and the casting of Werner Herzog as its supervillain. Its new sequel, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, doesn’t even have that strangeness going for it. It’s a bland and generic action flick, not just forgettable after the fact, but during.

Cruise again stars as the title character, a former Army officer who now floats around as a freelance ass-kicker, helping those who can’t help themselves. (Kinda like the Equalizer; one of the screenwriters is Richard Wenk, who penned the aggressively stupid film adaptation of that series a few years back.) This time, he’s at the service of Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), an occasional Army contact and possible romantic interest who is arrested and accused of treason. But of course that’s all a massive cover-up, one that can only be unraveled by Reacher cracking lot of skulls; along for the ride, for reasons that are less explicable the more you think about them, is Samantha (Danika Yarosh), a Troubled Teen who may or may not be Reacher’s lost daughter.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Along the way, there are copious scenes of military types barking orders in command centers, a car chase or two, a shoot-out at the old wharf, a twisty plot that we’re never really invested in, and some remarkably dumb decisions by our supposedly intelligent protagonists, like the scene where Turner tries to log in to the Department of Defense website (!), using her own username (!!), from an Internet café (!!!).

Oh, and lots and lots of Tom Cruise breaking bones. It’s funny – you never hear the phrase “vanity project” bandied about for Cruise movies, but here he is in, per the credits, “A Tom Cruise Production” that features Tom Cruise as a mountainous hard case tough guy with supernatural strength who never loses a fight, no matter how many (comparatively, at least) giants he takes on. The result is an act of willful disbelief, shared by the actor and his audience; sure, he could punch through that closed car window and punch out the guy sitting in the driver’s seat. Sure he could.

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But such moments were at least staged with a knowing wink by McQuarrie in the original; here, Cruise has retained the directorial services of Edward Zwick, whose credits include Love & Other Drugs, Glory, Legends of the Fall, the TV series thirtysomething, the unintentionally hilarious Pawn Sacrifice, and Cruise’s 2003 epic The Last Samurai. He’s made a few good films and quite a few more bad ones, but nothing from either column would indicate a hidden flair for pop brutality, and Zwick doesn’t reveal one. He can’t speak the language of violence the way McQuarrie can, as a writer or a director. The best evidence is the rough fistfight at the picture’s end, in which Reacher has previously promised to break his opponent’s arms, legs, and neck, and goes about the job with less crowd-amping satisfaction than grim inevitability. It’s just an ugly scene, and we’re glad when it’s over; try your best not to think about what a truly gifted action brutalist like Walter Hill or John Milius could’ve done with this material.

Zwick seems much more comfortable with the touchy-feely maybe-father-daughter arc, which unfolds exactly as you’d expect: initial coldness, then forced connection, so Cruise’s iron jaw can begin to melt and Smulders can look on approvingly. To be fair, all parties act these scenes well, and Smulders is impressive throughout the film, a muscular, charismatic presence that offsets Cruise nicely. (I’m not the first to note that he seems intent on co-starring with overwhelmingly powerful women of action lately, and bully for that.) But boy it doesn’t add up to much, and by the time Cruise is evading MPs and thundering at a corrupt JAG, it looks like he’s gone off and made the priciest prime-time CBS crime procedural we’ll ever see.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is out today.