Movie Review: “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back”

Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Danika Yarosh, Robert Knepper, Patrick Heusinger, Aldis Hodge
Edward Zwick

One of the main reasons why “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is an invigorating sequel is because it doesn’t share a whole lot in common with its predecessor. While Christopher McQuarrie’s lean and muscular thriller didn’t dig very deep into its titular character, director Edward Zwick’s film raises plenty of questions about the former military man. Zwick, a filmmaker known more for dramas than popcorn thrillers, brings his personal touch to the series based on Lee Child’s popular novels while also producing an impressive crowd-pleaser.

Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) is still drifting, traveling from town to town with a few dollars in his pocket. As the opening establishes, though, the former major isn’t done helping people in need. He also still has some ties to the military, like Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who often works with Reacher, but only over the phone. After the two develop a friendship and respect for each other, they make plans to meet when Reacher travels to Washington D.C. Once Reacher arrives in the nation’s capital and enters her office, however, he discovers that Turner is facing accusations of treason. Reacher doesn’t buy it, and he’ll do whatever he can do to prove her innocence.

Part of what’s great about McQuarrie’s film is that Jack Reacher is already Jack Reacher. He’s not at a moral crossroads. He knows right and wrong. He knows who he is. On the other hand, what’s so appealing about Zwick’s film is that we get to see Reacher start to ask questions about himself. We learned more about Reacher through action in McQuarrie’s movie, and this time around, screenwriters Richard Wenk, Marshall Herskovitz and Zwick place some of those actions under a microscope. There’s an inherent sadness to the character’s way of life; he has no real personal connections. “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” often likes to take its time to truly show what kind of effect that life of solitude would have on someone.

The movie is almost a better drama than it is a thriller. The action scenes are uniformly confident, and the last one ranks among the finest set pieces in Cruise’s filmography (which is saying a lot), but there’s a relationship Jack Reacher has in the film that shows a side of Cruise we haven’t seen in a long time, if not ever. I won’t spoil the relationship since it’s not shown in the trailers, but I will say it leads to a sense of catharsis and comfort for Jack Reacher that’s very effective. “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” doesn’t end with a literal bang, but the ending feels like one by getting to see another reminder of how Cruise is both a winning movie star and, more importantly, a great actor who can bring plenty of heart to a film.

All of this praise for the drama isn’t meant to undersell the action. That last set piece really does help the movie finish as strong as it does. After a chase in New Orleans – this is the first studio picture in a while to take advantage of the city for more reasons than just tax cuts – Reacher and his main antagonist, The Hunter (Patrick Heusinger), face off in a fight that’s fueled by exhaustion. Every punch, kick and heavy breath is seen and heard. It’s a visceral and slightly disturbing fight that Zwick wisely doesn’t rely on music for, letting the sound of their messy brawl provide the excitement.

The government conspiracy at the center of “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is mostly routine, and it’s arguably the least compelling part of the movie, but it’s not a huge issue since Zwick’s film thrives, first and foremost, on the characters. The story is a three-hander between Reacher, Turner and a mystery character named Samantha Dayton (Danika Yarosh). Whenever these three characters – all of whom have clearly defined motivations and arcs – are onscreen together, they’re entertaining to watch interact. Though “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” delivers the one-liners and Reacher badassery that you’d expect, where it delivers most is with character.