IoS film review 2: Jack Reacher Midnight's Children

Genius detective and 6ft 5in fighting machine? Has Tom over-reached?

Fans of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels might have a small problem with his first big-screen outing. In short, they might feel that the 5ft 7in Tom Cruise isn't the most obvious actor to play Child's 6ft 5in hero – and they might ask whether his casting had anything to do with Cruise being the film's producer. He couldn't have handed himself a more flattering role; the toweringly tall, Reacher is an unbeatable pugilist, a world-class marksman, and a brilliant detective with a photographic memory. Once a highly decorated soldier and military policeman, he now drifts around America, keeping himself to himself unless there are wrongs to be righted or nubile women to be bedded. Presumably his abilities as a concert pianist and a Michelin-starred restaurateur will be revealed in the sequel.

It's tricky to know how seriously to take all this. The film's writer-director, Christopher McQuarrie, doesn't seem sure from scene to scene whether he's making an edgy thriller, a popcorny action movie or a winking parody. And whenever Werner Herzog turns up as a comically diabolical villain, he seems to be making all three at once.

But if you can get past the tonal wobbling and the hero's godlike awesomeness, Jack Reacher is a satisfyingly meaty whodunnit with a clarity that the great Raymond Chandler might have approved of. It's set in Pittsburgh, where a sniper in a multi-storey car park has picked off five random people. The DA (Richard Jenkins) believes that the police have caught the culprit, but his daughter (Rosamund Pike) has other ideas. Luckily, Reacher is willing to investigate.

One refreshing aspect of his sleuthing is that McQuarrie doesn't cheat: the clues are there for you to spot, assuming you're as sharp-eyed as Reacher. Another novelty is that Jack Reacher isn't an origin story, nor does the case have a profound impact on its protagonist. Adapted from One Shot, the ninth novel in the series, it's just an average day's work for Reacher, which is quite a relief at a time when every hero, from Batman to Bond, has to grapple with their childhood issues before they can solve a crime.

Overall, Jack Reacher has more in common in with the private-eye thrillers of the Sixties and Seventies than it does with most of its contemporaries. McQuarrie doesn't pump up his action sequences with frantic editing or music, and during the car chases you half-expect to see Steve McQueen or Paul Newman behind the wheel. It's just a pity that the person you actually see is Tom Cruise.

A few days after the release of Life of Pi comes Midnight's Children, another film adapted from a Booker-winning magic-realist novel about an Indian youth. Like Life of Pi, it starts as a series of snappy anecdotes involving the hero's forebears in colonial India: it's 40 minutes before the central character is born, and an hour before he has his first psychic conference with the super-powered children who share his birthday. Unlike Life of Pi, though, Midnight's Children never gets beyond its initial anecdotal phase; it just keeps traipsing through episodes from the hero's Dickensian youth. When a film's leading man has a seven-year coma in the middle, it's usually a sign that the plot's in trouble.

Who's to blame for this meandering narrative? Well, the screenwriter and narrator is one Salman Rushdie, so he has to take some of the responsibility for not turning the Booker of Bookers into the film of films. But it's not all his fault. Deepa Mehta directs with well-meaning professionalism, but with none of the visual extravagance that Life of Pi has in spades. The tie-in edition of the novel announces that it's "Now A Major Motion Picture", but "major" is just what Midnight's Children isn't.

Critic's Choice

Erstwhile action starlet Mary Elizabeth Winstead – Sky High, Final Destination 3 – comes into her own as an alcoholic teacher in James Ponsoldt's Smashed. In a similar vein, grandes dames behave badly in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the re-released 1962 face-off between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.