I don’t know exactly when it was, but at some point, Tom Cruise decided that his action movies should be funny in addition to delivering thrills. This certainly wasn’t always the case (see the first “Mission: Impossible”) but it is now. Delivered with a wry smile or a raised eyebrow Cruise is great at offering an unexpected laugh. It doesn’t happen often in the new Reacher film, “Jack Reacher: Never go Back,” but when it does, the film is at its best.

To be sure, Cruise isn’t the first action hero who has gone this route, but the tack works for Cruise brilliantly. I know, he’s not just an action star, but he’s great in action films. Whatever his off screen life has been—and readers of this blog will know that we do not go in for celebrity gossip here—on screen his charisma has never really wavered, and that charisma here in “Never go Back.”

Again based on a novel by Lee Child, “Never go Back” sees our hero, Jack Reacher (Cruise), take a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet the woman who has his old job, Major Turner (Cobie Smulders) only to arrive and find she’s been arrested. Never one to leave a problem alone, Reacher delves into it and soon enough he and Turner are on the run from a military contractor as well as the regular army. Oh, and Reacher may have a daughter, Sam (Danika Yarosh), who, daughter or not, is on the run with the them.

Christopher McQuarrie directed the first Reacher film and serves as a producer on this one, but the reins have been handed over to Edward Zwick who previously worked with Cruise on “The Last Samurai.” Zwick and his long-time writing partner, Marshall Herskovitz also took a pass at the screenplay, as did Richard Wenk.

The results of the entire affair are good, but certainly not great. The first half of the movie, in fact, is wonderful. Reacher is constantly on the move, deciphering what happened to Turner and why, and with Turner the two make a formidable pair. As the villainous plan becomes clear, however, the movie slows down, moves from DC to New Orleans, and all sense of progress is lost. The shift to New Orleans also finds a significant drop in the movie’s use of humor.

Part of the overarching problem is that the evil company just isn’t that interesting, and their ability to have men everywhere all the time becomes dull. Over and over again, Turner and Reacher are surprised when they’re being followed or have to fight their way out of a situation. Robert Knepper briefly appears as the head of the company who is out to get our heroes, but his motivations never seem to go past money and he isn’t given anything to do.

An anti-Reacher also appears in the film. Known as “The Hunter” and played by Patrick Heusinger, he’s established early on as someone equal to Cruise’s character. A fight in the first half of the movie between Turner, Reacher, and The Hunter is great, but we don’t get to see the three interact directly for too long a period afterwards.

The best villain the film has is the guy who isn’t really a baddie, military man Espin (Aldis Hodge), who has it in for Reacher because the latter delayed the former’s promotion. Espin is the guy assigned by the military to track down Reacher and Turner and, in well-worn fashion, ends up deciding that they’re on the side of justice rather than villain.

Unlike the film’s early presence in DC, the New Orleans backdrop used in the second half feels much more like a promotional video (“see how much fun Bourbon Street can be on Halloween!”). “Simpsons” fans will keep expecting to see Skinner or Wiggum appear, if only for a second, and that popping into anyone’s head during the movie isn’t a good thing.

Overall, “Jack Reacher: Never go Back” is an absolutely acceptable, if rather generic, actioner. It offers moments of humor, some great chases, some fun fisticuffs, and the dynamic between Smulders and Cruise is wonderful. The unraveling of the mystery, too, is intriguing, or it is right up until it’s clear that there’s nothing all that special at its core. The addition of Sam even works, but the character is written in slightly too obvious a petulant-teenager-with-a-tough-outer-shell-has-soft-inside sort of way.

There are worse things than watching a fun-but-forgettable movie, but we wouldn’t be wrong to expect more from Cruise as well.

 

 

 

photo credit: Paramount Pictures