The new "Jack Reacher" movie, subtitled "Never Go Back," arrives four years after Tom Cruise made his first Reacher movie, subtitled nothing. It wasn't a huge hit, but it was hit enough. Some franchises are born; some are made; others thrust themselves upon the public.
The books keep coming: British author Lee Child has written 21 novels (the new one's due later this year) about the ex-U.S. Military Police Corps major, now living off the grid as a freelance knight-errant with superhuman killing skills and a keen eye for justice. The latest Reacher film is directed, with reasonable skill and no trace of personality, by Edward Zwick, based on a screenplay taken from the 18th novel.
I wish I had more dynamic news to report, but contrary to Reacher's own violent tendencies, some things in life and the movies practically defy a strong reaction. We're reintroduced to Cruise as Reacher in his preferred environment: a lonely diner, at night, where he has just broken the bones of four assailants. Rooting out corruption and evil wherever he wanders, Reacher advises his old pals in the U.S. Army. Over the phone (he has yet to meet her, and of course he's above Googling her to see what she looks like), Reacher develops a cautiously flirtatious phone relationship with Maj. Susan Turner, the head of Reacher's former internal military investigation unit.
Turner's played by Cobie Smulders, the best thing in the movie, and a terrific on-screen sprinter. Clearly she trained with the best of the best: Tom Cruise, in running mode, remains a sight to behold.
Straight off, "Never Go Back" frames Turner for espionage, slaps Reacher with a paternity suit (Danika Yarosh plays his maybe-daughter, a teenage veteran of the foster-care system) and develops a conspiracy involving shady military contractors abroad and at home. The chief adversary, a ruthless assassin played by Patrick Heusinger, tangles with Reacher and his two-woman posse down in New Orleans. Why New Orleans? Because nothing says "medium-budget action movie with bankable headliner" like a New Orleans setting. The Louisiana tax breaks encourage a steady stream of film projects, and "Never Go Back" is the latest.
Audiences will be getting exactly what they're expecting. Three takeaways, even if I'm the only one taking away anything from "Never Go Back." One: I've had it with the action-movie scheme of giving the tough-as-nails sociopath, otherwise known as our hero, a surrogate or actual daughter to protect and to justify the worst brutalities. (See "Man on Fire," "The Equalizer," etc., etc.) Two: The violence in "Never Go Back" grows increasingly wearying, and while waiting for the climactic, thoroughly grueling brawl between Cruise and Heusinger to end, I thought: Really? This gets a PG-13? The Motion Picture Association of America makes no moral sense to me.
And three: This week the LA Times has a news report on its website with the headline: "'Jack Reacher: Never Go Back' to battle 'Ouija' sequel and 'Boo! A Madea Halloween' at box office." There's your next Reacher movie right there: Tom Cruise, clenching his jaw often enough to make you worry about his dental health, takes on a board game and a man in drag with an ax.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action, some bloody images, language and thematic elements).
Running time: 1:58