Don’t send a Diddyman to do a Titan’s job. That would be the message coming from the fans of Jack Reacher, hero extraordinaire of Lee Child’s thriller novels. Reacher is 6ft 5in.
Tom Cruise, who produces and stars in the movie, is 5ft 7in. So he’s lost a few inches. Does it really matter? Reacher is already a man of myth, and not just in stature – he’s a canny street-fighter, a top-class marksman, and a brilliant investigator with a photographic memory. He can tell the time without looking at a watch and he can drive a car in reverse at Formula One speed. You could hire a Hobbit to play this guy and he wouldn’t look any less preposterous. Cruise is actually an obvious choice for the part, because he’s too much of a narcissist to care.
Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), adapting from One Shot, the ninth in the Reacher series, has managed, in spite of all, to make a competent mystery thriller. It starts with a sniper in a high-rise Pittsburgh carpark drawing a bead on the unsuspecting cityscape below. We see passers-by strolling through the crosshairs of his telescopic rifle, and the shooter’s finger hovering over the trigger. Then he picks off five of them, apparently at random, one by one. Within minutes, the police are on the scene, they’ve got DNA evidence from a bullet casing, and they’ve arrested a troubled Iraq veteran who looks guilty all ends up. The DA (Richard Jenkins) thinks it’s an open-and-shut number, but his daughter, a crusading lawyer (Rosamund Pike) is not so convinced. The suspect, before he was beaten into a coma, made a single request: call Jack Reacher.
Enter the man of the moment, an ex-military policeman who’s dropped off the grid (no email, no cellphone, no credit history) and now drifts about the US righting wrongs. He’s just come from the bus station, and unless Pike can convince him to take the case, he’s going right back: “I can walk there in 24 minutes,” he tells her coolly. What kind of sad sack would time his journey from the station to a diner? Just part of his control-freak personality, it seems, along with a refusal to pack more than one set of clothes – jeans, plaid shirt, long-sleeved vest thing. This minimalist outfit means he can go shirtless while doing his laundry, though in his semi-naked scene, director McQuarrie chooses a bizarre angle at which to shoot him: poor Rosamund seems to be directly addressing the Cruise pectorals.
Reacher has a theory about the shooter and his victims, a theory that the lawyer calls “grassy-knoll ludicrous”, but she doesn’t know yet that Reacher is right. Actually, he’s always right. Such an Übermensch requires a suitable adversary, and, mein gott, do they have one. Werner Herzog, wild man of movie-making, plays a criminal genius called The Zec, a man so single-minded that he survived a Siberian prison and frostbite by chewing the fingers off his own hand – thus avoiding gangrene. When one of his underlings messes up, The Zec offers him an alternative to death: he too must chew the fingers off his own hand. How do you suppose he does? Sadly, Herzog’s Medusa stare and villainous Mitteleuropa vowels are underused, the bulk of the screentime colonised by our diminutive star. Reacher may stop short of finger-eating, but he does know how to knock a man unconscious using another man’s head. And he’s still showing off that micromanaging memory of his. An enemy phoning him to make a rendezvous says, “You got a pen?” Jack comes back in a flash: “Don’t need one”. Ooh! I bet he drinks milk straight out of the carton, too.
McQuarrie keeps the wheels turning, though, and delivers action setpieces with élan. While the film isn’t in the same league as Cruise’s previous outing on Mission: Impossible, there’s a slam-bang energy not to be sniffed at. All the same... Can we talk about the elephant in the review? I saw Jack Reacher a couple of days after the news of the Sandy Hook school massacre in Connecticut, which made it impossible to watch those opening scenes without a reflexive sense of dismay. It’s not any particular fault of this film – dozens come out every year in which firearms are fetishised and marksmanship is just another talent – but its timing is plainly a disaster. A later scene in which Reacher meets up with a grizzled oldster (Robert Duvall) who runs a shooting range merely emphasises how deeply entrenched is gun use in American culture. In most other weeks, a film’s preoccupation with random murders wouldn’t have been noteworthy; but in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, it’s the only thing you do note.
Some will say this is society’s problem, not the movies’. But movies and society are conjoined, and you don’t get one without the other. Images of violence and bloodshed do not float free of context, they inhabit our heads, they haunt our memories, and in the end they may just desensitise our brains. Film critics can’t help knowing this, because they are more desensitised than most. How could it be otherwise, when we watch movies like this one week in, week out? That’s why the “controversy” about Tom Cruise’s missing inches looks to be almost an irrelevance. If you want to get steamed up about something, ask yourself how a film about cold-eyed killers has been rated a 12A and splashed as this Boxing Day’s must-see event.