Friday, May 3, 2013

Jack Reacher (2012): The Joys of Generic Entertainment

The night before I saw Jack Reacher I watched Beyond the Hills, Christian Mungiu‘s follow up to the excellent 4 months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and I know as a serious movie-watcher I was supposed to like it more than the latest so-called trashy Tom Cruise flick, but to be honest I didn’t. Jack Reacher is the more enjoyable and satisfying movie. As with Bruce Willis, I think Cruise is an action star who often does good work; I even liked the much-maligned Knight and Day. This film is another example of that good work. It’s forgettable maybe, but as entertainment it delivers. 

In fact it starts with a horrifying multiple shooting of random people strolling on a riverbank and at first I was afraid it was going to be one of those nihilistic films that rub our faces in senseless violence. But it turned out to be more thoughtful than most thrillers about the consequences of violence. A man named Barr, who fought with Reacher (Cruise) in Iraq, seems to have committed these murders and Rosamund Pike plays defense attorney Helen Rodin, who wants to stop Barr from getting the death penalty. Reacher agrees to help her only on condition that she visits the victims’ families and there’s one well-played, very affecting scene where she interviews a deeply grieving father and his feelings unnerve her. 

Pike is the main female star of the film and hopefully this will be a role that brings her to the attention of a lot more people, because she has a refreshing, bright-eyed, open look about her that works well on screen. I didn’t know who she was until I looked her up online and found out she was a Londoner and was in another film I saw recently, Barney’s Version, where she’s the object of Paul Giametti's affection and you can quite understand why he’s crazy about her.

There are a few weaknesses and weird things about Jack Reacher. There’s one scene here where Cruise is attacked in a bathroom and it’s so absurd that it’s kind of jarring. The two guys doing the attacking get in each other’s way and end up hitting each other more than their target; we suddenly seem to be in a Keystone Cops movie. Another thing I found a bit off-putting was Werner Herzog’s performance as the main bad guy. He’s fine as long as he doesn’t speak; with his spooky eye and his missing fingers (he himself gnawed them off in a Siberian prison) he looks suitably menacing. But as soon as he opened his mouth all I could think of was the avuncular real-life Herzog. His voice is so distinctive, and so well-known from his documentaries and interviews, that I fear now he’d have to do something radically different with that voice to make audiences believe him as a fictional character. And there are some scenes in the movie that are generic and deflating: the way Reacher is introduced with shots from behind which pump him up as a mysterious figure, or the final battle, especially the fist-fight Reacher has with the man who really killed all those innocent people.

But at other times the writing is quite clever. A bar-fight with five guys at first seems like a too obvious set-up to show what a whiz Reacher is at hand-to-hand combat, but then it’s revealed it is actually a set-up - not by the film-makers, but by Reacher’s enemies. Apart from the motivations given to the bad guys - the stated reasons seem a bit weak considering all the mayhem they cause - the film is well-written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, the writer of The Usual Suspects. It’s not quite as good as that film but it’s more than a respectable effort. The way the police put together all the clues that lead them to Barr is shown in a wonderfully economical way: it does in 2 minutes what most films would take 10 to do. The main plot about how Barr is framed for the riverside killings and how Reacher and Helen gradually figure out the truth, is well done. And there’s a nice final scene where she gets her DA dad (Richard Jenkins) to see that truth.

There’s an interesting, almost Oriental quietness to some of the confrontations between Reacher’s character and the bad guys. He is a bit of a Samurai. Not only does he play that movie cliché, the quiet man who does not seek violence but if pushed too far can more than handle himself, he keeps warning people that they’re not suited to the violent world he inhabits and should get out. He’s almost a peace advocate. You could say this was just a typical Hollywood ploy, with the film-makers wanting to have their cake and eat it, wanting to condemn violence but show it too, but it’s all in the way you do it, I guess, and I found it worked better here than in a film like Drive, which got far more praise as an ‘existential thriller’. 

There’s a decent car-chase in Jack Reacher involving a revved-up sports car that also reminded me of Drive and made me wonder again why that film got so much love from critics. Having seen his underwhelming Danish film Pusher I wasn’t as excited as many others seemed to be when Nicholas Winding Refn made his American debut (maybe they were excited because they’d only heard how good Pusher was supposed to be) and for me the film in general and the car chases in particular didn’t live up the hype. Salt with Angelina Jolie, for example, was a far better thriller that got far less love. And Jack Reacher is at least on a par with Drive. It's no masterpiece but some of the negative reviews it got were undeserved.

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