“You’re very intense. You know that?”
— Sam (Danika Yarosh) in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
There was a time in the ’70s when Hollywood made a lot of movies similar to the Jack Reacher series. The theme of a man, usually with some sort military experience, devoting himself to violently protecting the innocent from criminals and corrupt officials has been explored in everything from Billy Jack (1971) to the Death Wish (1974 and onward). These movies were so successful that they not only spawned multiple sequels, but also inspired the resurgence of similar movies that the industry has churned out since 2008’s Taken redefined Liam Neeson’s career. In the past five years, these kind of roles have become standard procedure for any male actor over the age of 50, with Denzel Washington in The Equalizer (2014), Pierce Brosnan in The November Man (2014), John Travolta in I Am Wrath (2016), and far too many Kevin Costner and Bruce Willis vehicles to count.
But when the first Jack Reacher was released in 2012, it was about as under the mainstream radar as a movie starring Tom Cruise can be. In case you missed it, it centered on a former Army Major who seeks vengeance after one of his old colleagues is framed for multiple murders. Thanks to the help of a female defense attorney (Rosamund Pike) and the spry owner of a gun range (Robert Duvall), he manages to expose and take down a vast government conspiracy. Despite being based on Lee Child’s popular book series, the film didn’t receive much media attention or break any kind of box office records, but it brought in a lot of money overseas and was generally well-liked by those who did eventually see it.
So expectations were pretty high for the sequel, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Most major movie critics weren’t kind to it, however, basing most of their criticisms on the belief that Cruise, at age 54, was getting too old to play an “action hero”. Fans of the original novels were also quick to point out that Reacher is described as being tall and large-framed, a stark difference from the comparably petite Cruise. (Reacher is even described as weighing “about 250 pounds” and “resembling a lump” in the Child-penned short story/graphic novel that comes with some copies of the movie, despite the fact that the same actor is clearly featured in its illustrations.)
In this movie, however, Jack’s size (that is, Cruise’s more diminutive stature) adds to the character’s remarkability. Various bad guys often doubt or misunderestimate his abilities, and seeing them (literally) get knocked down a peg is entertaining. Still, Never Go Back‘s main problem is that there isn’t nearly enough of this kind of action in what was marketed as an “action movie”, complete with one of the movie’s two explosions featured prominently on the DVD cover box.
The story (best described as a conspiracy thriller mixed with elements of vigilante fantasy) does start out strong, however, with an opening sequence in which Reacher single-handedly takes down a coffee-shop full of corrupt military police who have been selling illegal immigrants into slavery. The audience is shown that this is what Jack does; he travels across America, looking for wrongs to right. Along the way, he reports villains to his replacement in the military, Lt. Turner (Cobie Smulders), whom he also flirts with and schedules never-materializing dinner dates with via telephone. When he’s informed that she has been arrested and charged with treason, the main plot of Never Go Back begins.
Some reviewers have mentioned that Smulders (mostly known for playing “Aunt Robin” on the TV sitcom How I Met Your Mother) doesn’t really look like a convincing Army Ranger, but she’s adequately capable in this role. It’s refreshing to see that while she does fight and take down bad guys on her own, she isn’t transformed into some sort of Hollywood superwoman who’s incapable of getting knocked out by brute force or is impervious to pain. As in the last Jack Reacher film, there isn’t much romantic tension between the co-stars. Indeed, her sole shirtless scene aims to show her trained physique, rather than a gratuitous bra shot. Still, there isn’t much to her character. She doubts Reacher’s methods in clearing her name, but still goes along with him in the prison break he orchestrates. Later on, she gives Jack advice on how to deal with his potential daughter, but resents him for suggesting that she should stay with the girl while he goes out to question a suspect.
Which brings us to the subplot, in which Reacher finds out that he’s being sued for unpaid child support for the 15-year-old daughter that he supposedly had with a woman he doesn’t remember. Jack denies that he has a child, but still tracks down the girl, Sam, and discovers that she has been living with friends and shoplifting in order to make ends meet. When Sam is targeted by The Hunter (Patrick Heusinger), a psychotic assassin hired to kill everyone involved in Turner’s case, Reacher identifies himself as her father and takes her on the run with him.
In a worse movie, Sam’s stereotypical teenage behavior would be overplayed or played for laughs, but Never Go Back does a good job of giving her character some balance. She’s often moody and resentful, but is still able to understand the situation at hand and uses some skills of her own to help out. By the end of the movie, it’s quite obvious that both she and Jack want to have a father/daughter relationship, and the way the plot arranges this is a little surprising.
All of this still detracts from Reacher’s main purpose: busting up bad guys. Most of the movie finds Jack, Turner, and Sam literally on the run, as the Hunter’s goons chase the trio through an airport, and later, through the streets and rooftops of New Orleans during a Halloween parade. Reacher’s final showdown with the Hunter is a little more satisfying than you usually get with a main villain, but Jack’s other confrontations, with a snooty, disbelieving military officer (Aldis Hodge) and the conspiracy’s mastermind (a under-used Robert Knepper) are short and full of words — and lacking in action.
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back comes with an 18-page short story/graphic novel, “Everybody Talks”, which is written from the perspective of a rookie police detective who interviews Jack after he shows up at a hospital with a gunshot wound. Ironically, it ends up being more interesting than most of the movie itself. The Blu-Ray disc has about 80-minutes of bonus features, consisting of typical “behind-the-scenes” featurettes, which are peppered with interview bits from the cast, crew, and author Lee Child. It’s interesting to note that throughout these extras, Cruise and various other key players involved with the film keep referring to potential future sequels that build upon the characters featured here. While it would be nice to see more Jack Reacher movies, I just hope the scriptwriters will give audiences what they want — more action — rather than meandering down the disappointing road that is Never Go Back.