JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK Review

If this second Jack Reacher movie is good for anything it's to prove that Tom Cruise is indeed just as much a movie star as he's ever been. Cruise, who has been on something of a roll lately when it comes to action spectacles, has taken some time off from being Ethan Hunt and those impossible missions he tends to embark upon in order to return to the simpler, more straightforward drifter that is Jack Reacher. There's nothing wrong with this choice, nothing at all-in fact, the 2012 Jack Reacher film that was based on the long-running Lee Child's book series was a hard boiled, no frills, balls to the wall action romp that felt practical and logical in every fiber of its being. There was an authenticity to the action and crunch to the violence that made it all feel rather congenital to who this stoic titular character really was. We didn't get much past the solid facade, but the movie itself would give us plenty of mood and attitude in order to fill in the gaps. That Christopher McQuarrie film would take Cruise away from the extraordinary stunts and instead forced him to keep his feet on the ground and running in the vein that we've come to affectionately endure Tom Cruise running in. 2013's Jack Reacher never tried to be anything it wasn't and while this sentiment could be echoed for Never Go Back in all honesty the sequel doesn't try to be much of anything at all. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is so middle of the road predictable that by the time an action scene is loaded and ready to play out there is such a disassociation between the story and Cruise simply strutting around doing his thing that it's hard to care about or invest in either. Not only does Never Go Back feel rather pedestrian in its story and acting though, but the execution couldn't feel more lazy or uninspired either. Helmed by Edward Zwick who previously directed Cruise in the sweeping and rather stunning The Last Samurai I expected more from the duo when it came to delivering simple goods that could be smoldered down into basic formula with only a dose of skill and ingenuity thrown in when it came time for Reacher to dispatch with a few bad guys. Instead, what Zwick and Cruise deliver this time around is the epitome of "just good enough" with that only being more of a disappointment when considering the talent and thus the potential involved. It may be that I watched this on a large format screen, but there are certain action sequences and, even worse, standard dialogue scenes that look as if they belong on an old tube TV. In fact, sans the cell phones, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back very much feels like an action thriller that was produced in 1994 with no higher ambition other than being considered for the long flight home.

Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) takes down an unsuspecting Sheriff in small town America.
If you've seen the trailers you can probably guess how Never Go Back begins. Much like that well cut preview the film opens with Cruise's Reacher sitting alone at a small town diner as a handful of men lay bruised and battered on the ground outside. The purpose is to immediately establish the overwhelming badassery of Mr. Reacher while at the same time developing a connection between the titular Reacher and Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) who Reacher has assisted in capturing a dirty Sheriff who was trafficking illegals through his town for a profit on military property. In an immediately striking and very odd twist the film decides to develop the entire (continually deepening) relationship between Reacher and Turner throughout the opening credits as the two have a handful of innocent telephone conversations that build to Reacher asking Turner out to dinner. When the film finally settles into its main course of action we discover that Major Turner has been arrested for espionage and based on little more than intuition Reacher is ready to defend her as he insists she is being framed. The interim officer in Turner's place, Col. Morgan (Holt McCallany), is seemingly up to no good from the moment Reacher steps into his office to discover it is no longer held by Turner. This gives way to both something that is a mess of a plot while ultimately turning out to be a rather straightforward affair. In other words, the film makes things more complicated than need be. Were it not for the film attempting to make things more complex than they appear Never Go Back might have taken on some of the more streamlined aspects of the original, but as it is the script for Never Go Back (written by Zwick along with Marshall Herskovitz and Richard Wenk) piles on one too many talking head/gun for hire antagonists for there to be any single one that measures up to Werner Herzog's mysterious The Zec from the original as well as adding an unnecessary subplot about Reacher possibly having a daughter (Danika Yarosh) that only ends up adding value due to the dynamic Yarosh brings to the stilted chemistry between Cruise and Smulders. The same could be said for Aldis Hodge's (Straight Outta Compton) character as the actor gets a few nice scenes to play that at least spice up the slog of a routine the movie largely is.

The thing is-the standard storyline of whodunit mixed with ass-kicking is expected of a narrative of this nature. No one looks to a second rate Tom Cruise franchise for excellent storytelling or even compelling stories, but what Never Go Back should have at least provided was more than remnants of the first film and less of the obvious fact this sequel was something of a risk for Cruise and Paramount in the first place. And while Never Go Back is probably more or less what most people will be looking for if they venture out to fill their late afternoon with the film I couldn't help but be frequently reminded of how out of place this thing felt on the big screen. For starters, there is a glaring piece of product placement courtesy of iHop within the first twenty or so minutes that is so distracting it may as well have been a commercial break only to be followed by strange choice after strange choice. Strange choices as far as directorial choices go. For instance, there is a scene where Cruise's Reacher and Smulders' Turner run into a restaurant and clear out the kitchen staff so that they may have the element of surprise when the man trailing them finally catches up. When this occurs and things go from zero to sixty in a matter of seconds one would think the camera might remain trained on the action and those participating in it, but instead Zwick makes the odd choice to place an insert shot of waiters trying to get in through the kitchen door despite guns clearly going off from within. There would seem no reason for innocent civilians to run towards the gunfire and yet Zwick makes the choice to show this for seemingly no other reason than to give Smulders something to do during the action as she forces them back and towards another exit. This happens several other times as far as just showing the characters doing things, small acts, that aren't necessary in any seeming capacity and have no bearing on the story or their development. Rather, we're just supposed to buy into the fact that Major Turner enjoys lounging around in a bath robe as she tends to do that...a lot. Why does she even have such an opportunity outside of a single scene in a movie like Jack Reacher: Never Go Back? Who knows, but just like iHop secured product placement throughout it would appear Smulders only agreed to appear were she allowed to spend half her time in a bath robe and the other half in awkward-looking military garb.

Reacher along with Major Turner (Cobie Smulders) travel to New Orleans in search of a military contractor who's into some dirty business.
Such issues no doubt sound nitpicky from the outside looking in, but there is a constant nagging that there is something incomplete or incongruent about the whole affair. Even the look of the film, which makes many of the actor's faces look either glossed over or smeared makes it feel as if the make-up department and those fixing the skin tones and wrinkles in post couldn't agree on the color of the skin tone they wanted to use on certain actors. In short, the film feels cheap. At the same budget of $60 million as the original it just doesn't seem possible that Never Go Back could have looked and felt like the very serious, hard edged cop drama that came before it that knew it wasn’t breaking any boundaries but did what was expected of it really well. Never Go Back doesn't even seem to try and execute its well-worn beats in any kind of exciting way, but is instead so by the numbers it becomes little more than background noise-especially by the time the third act action climax takes hold and all we hear is a barrage of bullets and fight sound effects. Even the fights themselves feeling lazily choreographed and even more sloppily captured on camera. And yet, despite some seriously hammy dialogue that is often times delivered really badly, Tom Cruise is still a movie star and still possesses enough charisma to carry even a stinker like Never Go Back across the finish line. Cruise still plays Reacher as a man who very much operates by his own set of rules which naturally goes against the military code that never allowed him to do what he wanted when he wanted. The film never bothers to take a more insightful look at the soldiers in which it uses as pawns in its plot either-utilizing ex-seals and security members who are either now junkies strayed from their families or stone cold killers who can't shake the feeling they still belong on the battlefield-Never Go Back takes advantage of each of these types for the sake of its story, but it never does so much as to invest any time in the psychology of these men who enlist for more than just defending freedom, but who put their sound states of mind and sanity on the line. As I've said countless times now though, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back isn't a film that cares to dig too deep into anything, but more is just happy to skate by on the appeal of its star and the familiarity of its well-worn story model.