When Jack Reacher was released in 2012, the film didn’t match my expectations and I left the theater disappointed. I didn’t even bother to review it. However, after it hit the streaming sites, I found myself watching it regularly and appreciating all of the aspects that I had somehow overlooked the first time. The gunplay was good. The fights were great. And the chase was amazing. So Jack Reacher: Never Go Back was one of the few films this year to actually get me excited to see it. Especially now that I understood how to appreciate these films. Unfortunately, this new installment lacks most of the elements that made the first film so good. It’s entertaining, but it doesn’t have the spirit that fans were hoping to experience again.
Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) is still traveling the country and performing his good deeds, righting wrongs wherever he goes. His recent adventure has him working with a Maj. Turner (Cobie Smulders). When Reacher discovers that Turner is female and that they get along, he decides to visit her in DC and take her out to dinner. Once there, however, Reacher discovers that Turner has been arrested for espionage, but he doesn’t believe the charges. When he investigates, he learns that a shady paramilitary group may have something to do with Turner’s arrest and efforts to kill her. It’s up to Reacher to protect Turner and clear her name. To complicate matters, Reacher also discovers that he may have a daughter, Samantha (Danika Yarosh), who becomes a target when Reacher’s investigation begins to reveal too much.
The strongest thought I had while watching the movie was that I wished this story came out farther into the film series. The first film established Jack Reacher. The second film needed to reinforce the character with more of the same, but with different elements. Instead, his character is already changing in very noticeable ways.
First, he’s seemingly smitten with Turner even though he’s never met her in person, doesn’t know what she looks like, and only knows her through a handful of phone conversations. This feels strange because the last film portrayed Reacher as a man disconnected from the conventional humanity in everyone. Sex seemed utilitarian and not emotional. So when women gave him the eye or threw themselves at him, his judgment was never clouded by the distraction. But here he is, ready to travel across the country for a date. It can be argued that Reacher is tired of the solitary life and is taking the chance on having a relationship with someone who has a similar military background. Fine, but if that’s the case, then, once again, this film should have come later in the series.
Second, his attachment to Samantha – even though he’s unsure that she’s his daughter – also feels like a big shift for the character. Reacher’s behavior seemed predicated on logic and a worldview of “right and wrong”, not emotion. So to see Reacher put into a traditional role of “concerned parent” throughout the film, complete with gazing lovingly at Samantha while she sleeps, is disappointing in that it takes away some of the character’s unique traits.
Personally speaking, I hate it when children are involved as integral components in adult action plots. Terminator 2 and Aliens notwithstanding, children rarely add anything interesting and usually just end up being annoying. Samantha’s character doesn’t break that trend, with her snotty attitude and near zero charisma.
The plot is serviceable, but under developed. It was so unengaging that I was completely lost as to why Reacher was traveling to New Orleans and what the significance of the character he was going to meet there was until the film explained it to me later. This is probably because Reacher’s detective skills aren’t showcased this time around. Instead, he has someone else perform research and then give him information over the phone, which isn’t interesting to pay attention to.
The biggest issue with Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is that it has too many elements that don’t neatly join together. As a result, the entire film just feels loose throughout. Scenes end abruptly. Some characters have too little screen time to have any impact. Other scenes feel forced, trying to make a point rather than be organic moments. In one exchange, after the audience sees Turner bond with Samantha as a woman, Turner gets upset with Reacher as a sexist when he suggests that Turner would be better suited watching over Samantha because they’re both women while he goes out to investigate. And then the audience is treated to sanctimony about women’s difficulties in the military and how Turner can handle herself, followed by the requisite fight scene with a larger man where Turner somehow gets the better of him. The irksome aspect of this isn’t the forced female empowerment; it’s that precious screen time is spent giving another character something to do that would normally be performed by Reacher. There’s no problem having multiple badasses in a movie, but have them be badass in their own ways.
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back lacks the cleverness and clarity of the first film. Perhaps that’s due to different directions in the two books that the respective films are based on, but I suspect there’s more to it than that. Christopher McQuarrie who directed and adapted Jack Reacher had a vision for the film, and it came across in every evocative frame. Edward Zwick didn’t have the same determination, and it shows. As a result, I really don’t think this film is going to improve with future viewings.