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review

While the plot is almost a carbon copy of Lee Child’s novel of the same name, the film is oddly one of the limpest big-budget action films to come out recently.Chiabella James

Earlier this week, an inventive YouTube user with possibly a lot of time on his or her hands posted a video titled, "Every Tom Cruise Run Ever." By combing through all of the star's films – from his 1981 big-screen debut Endless Love to last summer's Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – the editor compiled a supercut of every Cruise sprint, charge, dart and dash, which ends up lasting an anything-but-sprightly 19 minutes (the Shanghai-set run in M:I 3 alone is comically long, perhaps a sly wink from that film's director, J.J. Abrams).

Yet, as repetitive as the video eventually becomes – by the time we hit 2002's Minority Report, even the most unathletic among us will be able to mimic Cruise's perfect form, all tight core, quick foot turnover, and powerful, majestic arm swings – it is still miles (perhaps 26 miles, 385 yards) more entertaining than the actor's latest film, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.

The alleged thriller is the sequel to 2012's simply titled Jack Reacher – an adaptation of Lee Child's wildly popular series of books that follows an ex-military tough guy who travels from town to town, righting wrongs and kicking heads. The first film, directed by Cruise compatriot Christopher McQuarrie (Rogue Nation, and the upcoming M:I 6), was intended to be the start of a new franchise for the star, a biannual cash cow that might rival his Ethan Hunt blockbusters.

But it just didn't take – perhaps because readers couldn't square the image of the six-foot-five, 250-pound Reacher from the books with Cruise's five-foot-seven, lightweight stature, or because it lacked the pyrotechnics of Cruise's other work. It closed its North American run with just $80.1-million (U.S.), a good deal shy of the standard $100-million threshold for extendable properties.

But then a funny thing happened overseas, as tends to in the movie business: Jack Reacher went on to earn almost $140-million more internationally, where Cruise's brand burns brightest, and with not much else in the intellectual-property bank (and 20 more Child novels to draw from), Paramount commissioned a sequel.

None of which, though, quite explains how the world ended up with Never Go Back, one of the strangely limpest big-budget action movies to come out in recent memory. From its opening credits – stylized in a sort of bargain-basement Friz Quadrata font, like a blander version of the Law & Order logo – and its lifeless side characters to its ho-hum climax and sleepy stakes, everything about this sequel screams, or really mumbles half-heartedly, "made for TV."

Some of the blame rests with Child, as the plot is almost a carbon copy of his identically titled novel (the 18th in the book series, despite this being only the second film). Reacher, still a drifter with nothing on his mind but fighting the good fight, finds himself in Washington to finally meet military contact/love interest Major Susan Turner (played by a sure-whatever Cobie Smulders).

But as soon as Reacher gets into town, Turner is arrested on trumped-up espionage charges, and our hero finds himself in the thick of a not-that-confusing conspiracy involving a shady colonel, a slightly shadier mercenary and Robert Knepper's cutthroat general, the shadiest character of them all (a Knepper speciality).

But whereas Child's smooth prose, intense love of character and narrative charm can ensure any Reacher novel zips along handily, no matter how predictable, the same cannot be said of director and co-scripter, Edward Zwick, who has a habit of diluting his performers' natural charisma with half-hearted direction and uninspired, self-satisfied stories (see Denzel Washington in Courage Under Fire, Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond, Daniel Craig in Defiance, and, well, Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai).

Here, Zwick pulls a similar trick, or rather he refuses to pull any tricks at all: His film unfolds in a painfully obvious and earnest fashion, draining whatever drama and tension Child originally conceived. Cruise, doing his best look-at-me-I'm-committed-dammit acting, tries to inject some kind of life into the tale, but is consistently thwarted by Zwick's indifference. Even his action scenes are a wash, choreographed as if on Ambien and with little fireworks, both figuratively and literally.

Which is where Never Go Back reveals its only fascinating wrinkle: There are almost no computer-generated effects here, unusual for the genre but exceptional for a big-budget Cruise vehicle. Instead of deafening explosions and helicopter-set showdowns, Never Go Back is bizarrely old school in its combat methods: hand-to-hand fisticuffs, simple two-car chases and a few mild shootouts. It would be a refreshing departure from the more bombastic set pieces of modern Hollywood if it weren't all so lazily executed.

But hey, at least Zwick and company carve out some time for Tom Cruise to run, with Reacher dashing across a busy avenue for about 18 seconds or so. It'll make for a great supercut one day.