Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, review: Tom Cruise’s loner is just as inscrutable as before

What starts as a pared-down and brutal thriller quickly - and bizarrely - turns into a family melodrama

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The Independent Culture

Dir: Edward Zwick, 117 mins, starring: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders

The Jack Reacher films give Tom Cruise the chance to get in touch with his inner Liam Neeson. They are action movies with a more rugged, blue-collar feel than the Mission: Impossible movies in which Cruise also stars. In these Lee Child adaptations, he plays a craggy, weather-beaten hero with a scar on his face and dirt under his fingernails.

In truth, it’s not a role that really suits him. Even now, in middle age, Cruise still has that boyishness that made him so appealing in teen movies like Risky Business. He isn’t the type of actor who ever seems to be wrestling with his demons.

Never Go Back, the second of Cruise’s Reacher movies after the character’s first outing in 2012, begins in disconcerting fashion. There has been bloodshed and violence but we don’t get to see it. Reacher is seen sitting in a diner, looking pensive, as witnesses tell the cops about this “one guy” who has taken out a small army of adversaries in seconds. 

Reacher is a drifter with a few dollars in his pockets. He’s ex-military. He has such natural authority that everyone still calls him “Major" although he has long since left the service. Jack is a man alone, anti-authority and anti-social, and the scriptwriters take every opportunity to let us know the fact. He is used to “working alone” and he is used to “being alone”. This, perhaps, is why he isn’t very engaging company – his social skills and prowess at small talk are sorely lacking.

For reasons that aren’t very clear to those who haven’t studied the books, he gets in touch with Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). She’s a woman alone, as tough and as self-reliant as Jack himself – and is now in charge of Reacher’s old unit. There’s talk of a date although she’s on the fence about that – and she is very quickly arrested on trumped-up espionage charges anyway. Jack’s determined to get her out of jail.

Much of the film follows Jack and Susan on the run as they are pursued across country by an assassin (Patrick Heusinger) who is yet another a loner. He is the dark reflection of Jack, also ex-military and every bit as resourceful and macho as Jack himself. They both quite admire each other. In the course of the movie, they chat on the telephone various times, taunting one another but also throwing in a few words of praise. “You’re good, Jack!”

In old Cold War thrillers, heroes took on the evil Soviet empire and often tried to save the world. The villains here are disappointing in their lack of ambition. They’re involved in some drug and weapon smuggling scam that relates to the American presence in Afghanistan. US soldiers have died as a consequence and there’s corruption that stretches all the way up the command chain. It is simple, venal greed, though, that drives the generals and politicians on the take. There’s no ideological fervour behind their actions.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back – Trailer 2

In spite of his misanthropic, solitary demeanour, Jack turns out to be strangely vulnerable when he discovers he might have a teenage daughter. He can’t remember the mother (who is suing him) but it very quickly becomes apparent that, underneath it all, he would dearly love to be a dad. The would-be teenage daughter, Samantha (Danika Yarosh), is, inevitably, yet another loner. Jack, terrified that she might be kidnapped and tortured by his enemies, takes her along for the ride.

It’s at this point that the film shifts direction in bizarre fashion. What has started as a pared-down and brutal thriller turns into a family melodrama. Samantha is the rebellious adolescent daughter, Susan is the surrogate mum and Jack is the aloof but still concerned dad. Between the action sequences, they eat takeaways in hotel rooms together. Susan gives the teenager parental tips on martial arts and Jack tells her off when she goes out alone without permission.

There are a lot of shots in which Cruise is shown running for his life. It’s not an elegant look. With his upright gait and pumping arms, he looks more Keystone Cop than Olympic athlete. As ever, though, he excels in the action sequences. These are well choreographed but many feel a little derivative. There’s a fight out in a restaurant kitchen, with pots, pans and knives to the fore.

A chase takes place during a fancy dress parade in New Orleans. Cruise gets cornered in abandoned factory warehouses or at the end of darkened streets. The final stand-off takes places high up on the roofs.

At the end of the film, Cruise’s Jack Reacher is as inscrutable as he was at the beginning. We have no sense at all of what is driving him or where he is headed. He’s still a man alone, with no fixed abode or obvious source of income. In old westerns, John Wayne or Alan Ladd would get to ride off into the sunset. At least, unlike Cruise, they never had to hitchhike.