Presumably taking a long, self-indulgent glance at his What Would Clint Do? bracelet, Tom Cruise takes on the iconic role of surly vigilante in “Jack Reacher,” resulting in a mismatch of wincingly epic proportions.
And, inveterate pro that he is, Cruise never wants the audience to forget who it is up there flexing his shirtless abs on the screen. At a recent preview for “Jack Reacher,” he appeared in a bizarre introduction — all twinkly eyes and disarming grins — during which he shamelessly tried to ingratiate himself with the audience, thanking Reacher creator Lee Child and boasting that all his driving stunts were real, not computer-generated. It’s as if he were begging us to process the movie on two levels: as pulpy, popcorn genre entertainment and as another referendum on Cruise’s off-screen life.
Given that “Jack Reacher” arrives just one week after the massacre in Newtown, Conn., the film will no doubt be perceived through another lens, as it obsessively replays a chilling assassination during which a lone gunman methodically shoots random people in a Pittsburgh park, including a nanny desperately cradling a young girl. The sequence, filmed from the assassin’s view-finder, was sickening even before the real world intruded, but now more than ever the tableau raises the question of what motivated director Christopher McQuarrie to re-visit it with such ritualistic fascination. (It also presents yet another example of the perversity of the MPAA’s ratings board, which saw fit to give the grisly violence of “Jack Reacher” a PG-13 rating.)
Then again, this is a movie designed primarily to put its leading man in as many cliched, macho postures as possible, whether it’s crouched behind the wheel of a lipstick-red vintage Chevelle or popping off perfect shots in a ballistic showdown. “I’m just a guy who wants to be left alone,” is just one eye-roller of a catchphrase uttered by Cruise, whose character is a laconic Iraq War veteran summoned by the aforementioned shooter to exonerate him for mass murder. Working in cahoots with a beautiful defense attorney (Rosamund Pike), Reacher is a supposedly reluctant hero, but with his penchant for grandstanding it’s difficult to imagine him turning down any opportunity to show off a nearly bottomless — and increasingly monotonous — store of Cool Guy-approved skills. (He even brings a knife to a gun fight and manages to win the day.)
These include fending off five toughs with his bare hands, escaping and evading police with the aplomb of a seasoned spook and dispatching the two stooges (who have ambushed him in a meth dealer’s house) by knocking their heads together. When Reacher isn’t swaggering his way through the Rust Belt, he’s knocking the ladies dead wherever he goes; one wonders, during a scene set at a rough-and-tumble saloon, whether one of Cruise’s contractual demands is that he can’t walk by a woman without eliciting a visible swoon.
It’s not that Cruise can’t be That Guy. He plays a perfectly credible action hero in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise, and there are few pleasures as profound as watching him subvert his own all-American screen image (see: “Magnolia” and “Tropic Thunder”). But “Jack Reacher” is a wildly ill-advised miscalculation, with Cruise’s virtually unstoppable appeal butting uncomfortably against Reacher’s alternately cocky and downright crude cynicism.
By the time Reacher miraculously solves the crime and saves the day in the midst of a driving rainstorm, the only thing Cruise looks drenched in is self-regard.