In his new two-fisted film, Jack Reacher, Tom Cruise plays a righteous American fantasy - a military veteran-turned-loner of unimpeachable moral virtue who really knows how to hurt people. Jack Reacher always does the right thing, even when it includes punching a man in the testicles, and for a movie in which the title character is supposed to be taciturn, he goes out of his way to let everyone know they are not as tough, smart or dedicated as Jack Reacher.
It has been widely noted that the character of Reacher - the protagonist of 17 novels by crime author Lee Child, including One Shot (2005), on which this film is based - is a force of nature, six foot five tall and built like a missile frigate. Cruise cannot duplicate any of these physical traits, but it doesn't matter. What he and Reacher share is a sense of complete and unstinting commitment to whatever they're doing.
As a movie role, Jack Reacher verges on the ludicrous, but Cruise gives it his all. In fact, a better technical actor, such as Michael Fassbender, would founder in the part, whereas Cruise takes in his stride the wide-eyed double takes from flustered women and deferential respect from men. More than a decade ago, with Magnolia, director Paul Thomas Anderson used Cruise's unwavering focus to reveal a toxic form of masculinity; in Jack Reacher, it reveals a man who headbutts a thug, then uses the thug's head to headbutt the next thug.
That's not progress but, rather, a pulpy kind of entertainment. However, it's what American writer and director Christopher McQuarrie has targeted. ''You think?'' a hood sneers at Reacher, trying to goad him. ''All the time. You should try it,'' comes the reply. McQuarrie, the creator of Keyser Soze and The Usual Suspects, knows this macho banter back to front, keeping the rhythms bluntly simple for Cruise.
McQuarrie has an eye for inventively cutting exposition to visuals, so information is communicated with dexterity. At the film's beginning, a former soldier framed for the cold-blooded execution by sniper fire of six Pittsburgh residents asks for Reacher's presence, allowing the district attorney, Rodin (Jenkins), and the investigating police detective, Emerson (Oyelowo), to laud the mystery man while admitting they can't find him, even as a purposeful Reacher finds them.
Because Reacher has his own interest in the arrested man, Barr (Joseph Sikora), and is so naturally impressive, he swiftly becomes the lead investigator for the defence attorney, Rodin's daughter Helen (Pike), allowing him to poke around and identify deficiencies in everyone else's work and stir the workings of conspiracy that is daftly excessive but most pleasurable because it's overseen by Werner Herzog.
A single rote sentence spoken by the German filmmaker, here improbably playing a criminal mastermind with the usual monstrous pathology, is enough to suggest his now-trademark narration of his own documentaries. When they're onscreen together, you forget about his bad-guy paraphernalia - a milky eye and a murderous sidekick played by Jai Courtney - and hope Herzog will simply start talking about Cruise as if he's a man who lives with bears.
McQuarrie's previous effort at directing was The Way of the Gun, a modern-day western, but Jack Reacher recalls the sometimes loopy, often overblown action films from the 1980s, such as Lethal Weapon. When all the film's characters convene in a quarry for a shootout, the film is bathed in tough-guy nostalgia, and it's only exacerbated by Reacher dropping his gun so he can fight hand-to-hand with an adversary.
The film envisages murder as a cruel, cold act, with the uncertainty of the sniper attack genuinely terrifying, and that should translate to a lean, tough action movie that stays a step ahead of expectation. But several long scenes exist only to remind us how gifted Reacher is, particularly a visit to a gun range run by Robert Duvall's grizzled Cash. The veteran's mercurial smile is welcome, but the further glorification of Reacher is unnecessary.
The problem isn't that Cruise doesn't resemble Jack Reacher, it's that there's not enough in Jack Reacher to satisfy Cruise. At 50, the star's youthful cockiness has solidified into narcissism. For a vigilante who travels light, Jack Reacher carries an awfully big ego.