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Cruise is a reach in role, but story still works

POSTED: December 27, 2012 12:30 a.m.

Fans of crime writer Lee Child (pen name of Jim Grant) were livid when they heard Tom Cruise would be cast as Jack Reacher in the movie adaptation, and rightly so.

The character Jack Reacher is 6 feet 5 inches tall. Cruise is 5-foot-7 at best. Reacher’s stature and physique are persistent points in Child’s novels, so this isn’t exactly quibbling among Reacher fans.

Cruise just is not the guy you picture when you read a Jack Reacher novel.

Well, Reacher fans, there is no need to worry. Cruise’s appearance does not weaken “Jack Reacher.”

No, it’s Cruise’s performance that weakens the movie.

Reacher is a former military police major who is brilliantly deductive, restrained and shuns attention. Cruise is a versatile actor, but none of these are qualities we associate with him.

Luckily, the storytelling bails out Cruise, mostly.

Genuine detective fiction has nearly disappeared from American movie screens. Television has become the domain of the detective procedural.

So it’s rare that we get a movie like “Jack Reacher,” which focuses on Reacher’s detective process while spiking the plot with a handful of action sequences. The movie formula is usually reversed, using the mystery as merely an excuse for action.

Some are complaining about the deliberate, unhurried pace of “Jack Reacher,” but I think it’s one of the strongest qualities of the film.

Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s only other directorial effort is the under-appreciated “The Way of the Gun” (2000). He is primarily a writer and he tells his story in “Jack Reacher” as a writer would.

The joy of a detective story is walking through the mystery with the investigator, making inferences and developing theories along with him. McQuarrie takes the time to allow us to do those things, and the movie is richer for it.

The film does feature several intense action sequences, though, all of which are done very well. The obligatory car chase is especially fun. Rather than impress us with only speed and destruction, Reacher and his adversary play cat-and-mouse through city streets, and the sequence climaxes with an unexpected, hilarious twist.

The supporting cast, which includes Rosamund Pike, Robert Duvall, Richard Jenkins and David Oleyowo, are all excellent.

For most viewers, though, the movie will hinge on Cruise’s performance.

On one hand, most of Reacher’s defining qualities are there. He is always contemplating, constantly in control and cannot ignore injustice.

On the other hand, Cruise plays those traits as arrogance and self-righteousness. I doubt that’s what Child had in mind, and I wonder how devotees of the books will respond.

Cruise isn’t terrible, but he is distractingly uneven. Casting an actor who completely understood and could fully inhabit the character could have elevated this movie beyond what it is.

A highlight of the film, however, is Werner Herzog’s portrayal of The Zec, a cloudy-eyed, sadistic villain with an accent we can’t exactly place.

Herzog (whose accent is from Bavaria, Germany, for the record) is one of the world’s premiere documentary filmmakers. Two of his most recent, “Into the Abyss” and “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” are each brilliant in completely different ways.

Herzog’s voice and demeanor are so intense he can make a children’s book sound chilling — and he has. Seek out his hilariously ironic reading of “Goodnight Moon.”

There’s nothing ironic about Herzog’s portrayal of The Zec. As a child, The Zec staved off starvation in a Siberian prison camp by eating most of his own fingers. This is one horrifying villain, made all the more unsettling by Herzog’s seething, otherworldly voice and piercing stare. He is a joy to watch, just like a great movie villain should be.

“Jack Reacher” is a very enjoyable movie, despite Cruise’s off-target portrayal. It remains to be seen, though, if the movie will perform well enough to launch a franchise.

Child’s novels provide material for several films, but if this first foray doesn’t reach audiences, the character may be silent forever.

Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.


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