What We Do
Werner Herzog. That’s all you need to know about Jack Reacher. Though it’s properly touted as a Tom Cruise vehicle—he produces and also stars—the film is so completely perverse and vivid whenever the camera turns to Herzog that you might forget anyone else is on screen. Here playing the Zec (an appellation helpfully translated by more than one opponent as “the Prisoner”), he’s as creepy and delirious as you might hope, one eye turned icy with one of those blind-effect contact lenses, his voice ever singular and his affect so very Herzogian.
The Zec is the bad guy in Jack Reacher, or one of them anyway. As Jack (that would be Cruise) puts it, you only need to “take one look at this guy to know he’ll do anything to survive.” This makes him something of a perfect villain for Jack, who’s not much for legal niceties, but rather will do anything to achieve his version of justice, which the film takes more or less as its own, with some room for your nuance if you want it. When one idiot kidnaps a girl Jack’s taken up as a cause, Jack calls the kidnapper and hangs up, calls and hangs up, unable to sort out his most alarming threat, until he does. Assuming that signature steely Cruise look as the camera comes close, Jack promises, “I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot.”
So yes, Jack’s a monster in his own way, ferocious and sure of himself and dismissive of everyone who’s not as smart as he is—which is, really, everyone.
Jack’s called in for the Zec case before you or he knows the Zec exists: a sniper shoots five people in Pittsburgh (an ideal setting for these shenanigans, with steep winding hills, grinding-loud muscle cars, and three rivers—especially as it’s shot by the brilliant Caleb Deschanel). The kid the cops pick up isn’t the shooter—you know because you’ve seen the crime—but James Barr (Joseph Sikora) is a former army sniper whom Jack, a former military investigator, once prosecuted for sniper-murder. This makes Barr an ideal patsy (a word director Christopher McQuarrie’s script uses, to seemingly offhand but still terrific effect), man who previously committed the crime he’s now accused of committing (see also: Killing Them Softly).
If Jack takes a minute to figure this out (again, a point revealed explicitly in the movie’s deftly edited opening sequence), it’s partly because he’s stubborn and partly because he’s stuck educating the pretty lady lawyer who hires him—Barr’s lawyer, Helen (Rosamund Pike), who also happens to be the resentful daughter of the DA, Roden (Richard Jenkins). She’s awfully slow on uptakes, as lady lawyers in such cases tend to be, though not as slow as the girl who’s hired to bait Jack, a trampy womanchild with awfully red lips, a bare midriff, and the name of Sandy (Alexia Fast). These two relationships leave Jack looking like the hero, as he has more than one opportunity to rescue or at least earnestly advise these damsels, while the other boys here, from local meth-cooking thugs to the cops headed by Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo), look like lunkheads, either self-absorbed or stupid or arrogant, usually all at once.
This general arrangement of testosterone all sounds pretty regular, and as you suspect, it leads to car chasing and weapons discharging and Jack looking sharper and better equipped, mentally and physically, than everyone else, that is, supporting his worldview. Such is his charm, of course, as Lee Child’s Reacher books have made very clear for years. Jack’s famously a “drifter,” and that’s how he lives his life, trying not to have much: when, in his motel room, Helen asks him to put his shirt on, he reveals that the wet one in his hand, the one he’s just washed in the sink, is his shirt, that he literally has only what’s on his back. She’s thinking he’s trying to seduce her, and his chest looks hard, but he’s so intent on the case that she only feels embarrassed when she learns he’s not interested in her.
That’s because by this point, deep into a series of beatdowns and bats to the head and another dead body too, Jacks has sorted out that he is, in fact, pursuing a dastardly villain. In this too, you’re a step ahead, for you’ve seen the Zec, in a bit of business designed to showcase his total absurdity and the entire caper’s stakes as he sees them. The Zec first appears beneath a shadowy underpass, taunting a mook (Michael Raymond-James) who didn’t get his assignment done. The taunting is brutal, rather horrible, and the poor guy Linsky—who looked at least moderately menacing just a couple of scenes before—is reduced to blubbering and whining and crawling on the road surface. His trajectory is swift and crazy, and strangely comprehensible, if only because it’s the Zec who stands over him, the Zec who looks awful just standing there.
The story the Zec tells is all about the awfulness. Exhibiting his own nub of a hand as evidence that he once chewed his fingers off in Siberia (this being one of his sites of imprisonment, one whose very name might make lesser prisoners squirrely). Linsky is excessively squirrely, and not even close to being up to the new task the Zec puts before him. Linsky trembles and sputters, verily. The scene takes the course you guess it will, except that it grants Herzog the chance to ask his victim to consider just how sincerely he is a man who will do anything to survive: “Did I need a knife in Siberia?”
It’s stunning, this line, bizarre and entertaining, because Herzog says it and because McQuarrie (who wrote the The Usual Suspects and wrote and directed the underrated The Way of the Gun) wrote it for him to say. You forget how good movies can be when writers actually write them. The plot here is a Reacher plot. The rhythms and inflections, they’re something else. Yes, the players—who include Robert Duvall as an old marine and now a gun range owner—are excellent, even Cruise, whose Jack is taut and darkly comic (and short), his cheekbones sharp and awkwardness just right, as if Cruise is better suited to this particular lunacy than he has been to most others in which he’s been involved.
That said, when Cruise is on screen with Herzog, you do pretty much forget Jack Reacher is there. That’s not to say that the Zec is showy or sucks up air. He’s not even a mastermind per se, more a master presence, or, not to put too fine a point on it, a metaphor. The plot doesn’t much detail his plans to extract as much wealth as possible from some real estate deals because, he tells Jack, “Enough. There’s no such thing.” He says the word like it means something real and cruel and potent, no matter how vague it might seem in another, non-Herzogian context. “We take what can be taken,” the Zec sums up. “That is what we do.”