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Tom Cruise’s new mission impossible? Embodying Jack Reacher

Tom Cruise in a scene from "Jack Reacher." Cruise plays a former military cop investigating a sniper case.

Karen Ballard/AP

2 out of 4 stars

Jack Reacher
Written by
Christopher McQuarrie
Directed by
Christopher McQuarrie
Tom Cruise, Rosemund Pike and Werner Herzog

What motivated Tom Cruise to want to play the character of Jack Reacher? A desire to race around in the vintage fast cars used in the film? A shot at a new franchise now that he's finished with Mission Impossible movies? Or just rampant vanity?

The character of Reacher, based on the novel One Shot, the ninth in a series by British writer Jim Grant under the pseudonym Lee Child, is a figure of wish-fulfillment virility – a massively built (6 foot 5, with a 50-inch chest), mathematically gifted, former intelligence officer who lives as a bus-riding drifter and solves crimes that he stumbles across.

Cruise is too mature, diminutive and fine-looking for the role, even if he has gym-sculpted abs, which he manages to show off. Jack, who travels light, owns just one shirt, from which he has to wash out the blood stains.

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Jack Reacher was written and directed by Brian Singer's writing collaborator, Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie), and it has few distinguishing characteristics except for some unfortunate real-life timing. The film begins with a sniper in Pittsburgh, hiding in a raised parking garage and picking off five innocent people, including a nanny with a child, across the river. The resonance of the Sandy Hook shootings is unavoidable, and it's no wonder the Pittsburgh premiere of the film was cancelled last week.

The film's opening is also Jack Reacher's most gripping sequence and the initial premise is intriguing. The suspected killer, an Iraq war vet with a trigger-happy history named James Barr (Joseph Sikora), is in a coma. Before he went under, he scrawled the phrase, "Get Jack Reacher" on a pad. Reacher, who heard of the event, turns up on his own. He visits the District Attorney (Richard Jenkins, in typical shifty mode) and a detective on the case (David Oyelowo), but they seem to have everything too neatly sewn up.

The DA's rebellious daughter, Helen (Rosamund Pike) is Barr's lawyer and she decides to hire Jack as her investigator, or perhaps just to have his handsomeness around. After meeting Jack, Helen's character switches from sensible business wear to revealing push-up bras, as she stares slack-jawed with lust at this paragon of male independence. Otherwise, the story line owes something to one of Dashiell Hammett's "dirty town" tales of crime, law and big money in collusion. There's an international twist and an evil honcho played by director Werner Herzog with a milk blind eye. He describes in his lugubrious voice how, once in a Siberian prison camp, he chewed off his fingers to avoid gangrene, which establishes he's a weirdo. Even Robert Duvall, who hams it up as the grizzled ex-marine and owner of the local rifle range, can't quite match that.

Mostly, the movie's about Reacher delivering or shrugging off beatings, engaging in car chases and planning complicated shootings. Though all women ogle him, Reacher seems asexual, a bit overfond of making pronouncements about his philosophy of rugged independence and, as played by Cruise, mostly robotic.

World-weariness is not really the energetic star's best driving gear. Nor are declarations of menace intended to identify Jack Reacher as a modern-day mythic avenger. When he tells an enemy, through his clenched choppers, "I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot," the effect is, unintentionally, popcorn-spitting funny. Talk about overreaching.

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