Armed with a title and role begging to be parodied, Tom Cruise returns to the scene of his cinematic crimes in 2012’s Jack Reacher with a new installment, Never Go Back, once again playing Lee Childs’ skull-cracking ex-military drifter. The first Reacher round at least boasted a nice, spare B-movie throwback vibe, a cool car chase, enjoyable undertones of its hero’s being a modern-day ronin, the always welcome Rosamund Pike and the unexpectedly smart choice of villain—Werner Herzog. This time out, though, things are slower, less grabby, less inspired and more villain-challenged than pretty much any crime show you can catch any night on TV.
The storyline, such as it is, comes from Lee Childs’ 18th Reacher novel and runs like so: On the downlow in Virginia, ex-Major Reacher strikes up an improbable phone flirtation with his replacement in the military police unit, one Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders, clench-jawed, fit as hell and utterly humorless). For a guy who had such terrible experiences and keeps correcting anyone who calls him “Major,” Reacher hangs around military sites and personnel like a hawkish stalker. Anyway, he thumbs it to Washington, DC to see Major Turner, only to be told that she has been stripped of her post and jailed for high crimes and espionage. What’s a wrong-righting hero to do but rescue her and expose what he’s certain is a frame job and cover-up of shady doings among U.S. Army military brass?
Meanwhile, Reacher’s military dossiers show that a woman he cannot recall ever meeting has accused him of fathering her child, now grown into a troubled, thieving teen (Danika Yarosh) named Samantha. So Reacher busts Turner from prison, the two save Samantha from bad guys who’ve torn up her apartment and the three form a weird, awkward family unit who go on the run to exonerate Turner and learn whether or not Reacher is a papa. All of this is only a clothesline on which to hang lots of cheerfully absurd Cruise bruisin’; he plays such an all-knowing, all-conquering character that the movie generates zero suspense or interest, especially when action scene after action scene is set in the most clichéd locales imaginable—including conveniently empty warehouses, restaurant kitchens and docks.
Directed with zero zip, style or viewpoint by Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai) from a script credited to Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz and Richard Wenk, this is a movie of setups without payoffs and jokes without punchlines. Things get interesting when Samantha asks Smulders’ character whether she’s a lesbian (she says she isn’t) and begins to pattern herself after her behavior. Nice stuff, but it goes nowhere. Then there’s the matter of Cruise and Smulders’ characters sharing motel rooms. She strips down to a bra and he bares his torso. They give each other steamy glances and talk about getting freaky in a cheap motel one day. Then they go all virgin-like. Nothing happens, not even a nice warm hug—although, honestly, Cruise and Smulders generate so little heat that the thought of them getting intimate chills right to the bone.
Finally, there's a long shootout and chase sequence set during a lavish Halloween parade in New Orleans. Not only is it a low-rent replay of the Day of the Dead cold open in Spectre, but it’s also a big nothing of a set-piece because the action never really takes place in the midst of the costumed crowd.
Cruise glowers and squints manfully, his acting minimalistic, his much-vaunted charisma smothered by a shaky script, tiresome blue-ish visuals and an air of been there, done that. Smulders isn’t called upon to do much more than run (she’s good at it) and deal with sexism (ditto) in and out of the military. Yarosh, who cut her teeth on TV shows including Shameless and Heroes Reborn, is strong as Reacher’s maybe-daughter, but the otherwise talented Patrick Heusinger, in an underwritten role, is too generic (and too killable) as Reacher’s nemesis.
Look, a Jack Reacher movie doesn’t have to be great, but it does have to be better than other vigilante flicks like, say, John Wick or Blood Father. This one isn’t. A Jack Reacher movie can also never, ever be dull. This one is.