Christopher McQuarrie, the writer-director of Jack Reacher, is an oddly underused Hollywood asset. After winning an Oscar for The Usual Suspects (1995), McQuarrie did not reemerge on the big screen until his directorial debut in the wildly underrated The Way of the Gun (2000). He was then silent for another eight years before reteaming with The Usual Suspects’ Bryan Singer to write Valkyrie (2008).
Hollywood’s difficulty getting projects from script to screen is well documented. Tales from the Script (2009) detailed just how annoying it can be to be a screenwriter. But it is still odd that McQuarrie has not developed into a hotter studio property. His scripts are taut and funny without show, and he has a deft feel for fight sequences, subtly blending morbid humor with bone-crunching brutality.
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If Jack Reacher is any indication, though, McQuarrie may not be underrated for long. This hard-charging action flick, based on the bestselling series of novels by Lee Child, is a throwback to the tough-nosed crime dramas of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a film noir examination of a man who fixes injustice by doing what’s right—if not always what’s legal.
Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) is a crack Army military police investigator who, after his time overseas, returned to the United States and began living off the grid. Tied down by no job, no house, no relationships, he is content to drift, considering it a form of freedom few others enjoy.
He is drawn into society after hearing that discharged military sniper James Barr (Joseph Sikora), with whom he has a dark history, has been arrested for a shooting spree in which five were killed. Though first convinced of the sniper’s guilt, Reacher is persuaded to join his defense team as an investigator by Barr’s attorney, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike). The more Reacher digs into the case, the less sure he is of Barr’s complicity in the crime. Soon the entire conspiracy behind pinning the murder on Barr begins to unravel.
Reacher will have to transcend the law in order to crack the case. High-speed car chases and bathroom beatdowns are the order of the day.
McQuarrie is talented enough to leaven the action sequences with just the right amount of humor. At one point Reacher is attacked in a bathroom by a pair of thugs who tag him with a baseball bat but fail to finish the job because the washroom is too cramped to fight effectively. The sequence recalls John Goodman, William Forsythe, and Nicolas Cage trashing a trailer in Raising Arizona. There is humor to be mined by confining violence to small spaces, and McQuarrie taps into a rich vein.
Confounding expectations is something McQuarrie has excelled at throughout his career. The Usual Suspects was a surprise hit that kept audiences guessing right through the last frame, while Valkyrie managed to make suspenseful a plot to kill Hitler that we knew would fail.
But McQuarrie’s best work was in The Way of the Gun, the story of a kidnapping gone wrong that opens with a fight in which our putative heroes break a mouthy woman’s nose and closes with them crawling through broken glass and bleeding under the desert sun. McQuarrie is an expert at using your knowledge of Hollywood clichés against you without showing off.
If Jack Reacher has a glaring flaw, it is the film’s failure to more prominently feature director Werner Herzog’s turn as The Zec, the villain pulling the strings. Herzong’s performance is brilliant insofar as it’s not actually much of a performance at all. The character might as well just be called "Werner Herzog. "
The character’s creepy Germanic intonation—Herzog’s normal inflection, as anyone who has seen one of his documentaries will recognize—renders the bizarre demands he makes on his victims all the more terrifying. He is less a character than a voice uttering pseudo-philosophic nothings, most of which inspired fear-giggles from the audience.
But what the film lacks in Herzog it more than makes up for in Cruise, who continues his comeback in this tightly plotted and expertly paced thriller.