It wasn’t too long ago that television was a place without pretension. It was a place to go for serialized, no-frills storytelling and you’d never hear it compared to what you’d see in the cinema. The rise of prestige television through shows like “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” gave way to an extended period of television being shot, cast, and budgeted like films. Two decades later and you can’t turn around without running into a new drama starring movie stars that desperately want you to grapple with weighty problems. Thank god for Amazon’s “Reacher.”
Based on “The Killing Floor,” the first novel starring Jack Reacher by Lee Childs, “Reacher” is a down and dirty delight stuck in another era. In the series premiere, the titular Jack Reacher (Alan Ritchson) gets off a Greyhound in Margrave, Georgia, goes into a diner for a slice of pie, and almost immediately, he’s arrested for murder. To prove his innocence, he forms an uneasy alliance with the police department’s sole detective, Boston transplant Oscar Finley (Malcolm Goodwin) and deputy Roscoe Conklin (Willa Fitzgerald). Together the trio descends into the small town’s underbelly uncovering a deep rot beneath the sleepy, benevolent exterior.
It’s impossible to go any further without discussing the 5’7″ elephant hanging over this show. When Tom Cruise was cast as Jack Reacher in the 2012 Christopher McQuarrie-directed film, it was met with fury from fans of Childs’ series. Described as an impossibly tall and muscled up ex-marine in the novels, Cruise was beyond atypical casting. He’s arguably the biggest movie star on earth for a reason, though, and despite his height, turned in a violently moody, quietly charismatic performance in a great film (and decent sequel). His Reacher embodied the series’ ethos even if he didn’t quite look the part. To bring the character to television, it would be a tall order for anyone to overcome Cruise and all that he entails. Developed by Nick Santora, notable for creating the series “Scorpion,” “Reacher” opts for ripped-from-the-pages casting in walking refrigerator Ritchson.
Ritchson is a bit of a mind-melting screen presence. Blonde hair, square jaw, muscles on top of muscles, there isn’t an inch of him that isn’t perfect. So perfect, it often dips into an uncanny valley because he looks like he’s a creation built from mocap. Frighteningly, this is the real deal and that’s exactly what helps him erase Cruise from your mind. Ritchson, admittedly, isn’t setting the world on fire in the acting department, but he’s got an eminently watchable cold, steely intensity broken only by undeniable charm. Always six steps ahead of everyone around him, he’s a meathead Sherlock Holmes. The smartest guy in the room and when the dust settles, the only guy left standing too. While entertaining, seeing Cruise outsmart people isn’t something you’ve never seen before. Seeing a guy with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body do it? That’s worth its considerable weight in gold. Ritchson tromping through the town hulking over friend and foe alike, having each of them figured out before they can say a word, brings “Reacher” a charm that’s often missed from seedy gumshoe tales.
It’s a charm that washes over the entire show. “Reacher” has no illusions of what it is or isn’t. Where too many detective sagas on the small screen often devolve into joyless, “what’s it all about” meandering, “Reacher” is bruising, pulpy fun. What keeps you locked in straight through to the finale is its willingness to get down into the muck and shrug its shoulders when asked to examine it. Reacher, as a character, is absolutely a male power fantasy for Lee Childs and it’s certainly worth exploring how damaging something like that can be. Through brief childhood flashbacks, the series makes half-hearted attempts to find the kernels of Reacher’s rage but deep down, you aren’t here for that, not really. “Reacher” is an earnest and honest depiction of a broken man enacting violence through a warped code of honor. Intentional or otherwise, “Reacher” often plays like the Stallone action classic “Cobra” where the violence and policing are so fascistic and out of line, they can’t help but be a commentary on why that’s horrifying.
Outside of Ritchson, “Reacher” is Willa Fitzgerald’s shining moment. A standout in MTV’s underrated “Scream” series as the Sidney Prescott stand-in, Fitzgerald has long been a talent waiting to break through. Here, like Ritchson’s Reacher, she’s remarkably assured with a grit baked into her soul. Narratively, people who are oppressively great at what they do can be limiting. “Reacher,” as it does with the rest of its limitations, skates by on pure likability and Fitzgerald’s Roscoe is easiest to like. Roscoe doesn’t stress, she doesn’t back down, she’s the surest hand on any team. Fitzgerald injects both heart and soul into the proceedings giving a lived-in performance to a character who might not have much interiority otherwise. Elsewhere, Malcolm Goodwin is often strong as Oscar Finley but can’t quite escape the cliche-ridden pencil pusher he’s assigned to play. He’s at his best when he gets to sit with moments and assess. Here, the pain of his mysterious past settles in and you’re able to locate the person underneath the stuffy suit.
Mystery is the name of the game and “Reacher” hums along like the meat and potatoes thriller it’s adapted from. Leaving just enough clues per episode and always ending on a shocker, the experience of watching “Reacher” mirrors ravenously tearing through chapter after chapter of a dog-eared novel. It’s pulp as television and like the man himself, has no time to wax poetic or unfurl too much information. Lean, mean, and violent, it’s a breathless eight episodes designed to have you itching for another slab of beef. The fight choreography is bone-crunching and edited well, clearly showing Reacher’s methodical movements extend beyond investigation and into the dissection of the human body. If there’s one thing that frustrates, it’s the compressed muddy look that’s unfortunately endemic to all streamer programming now. It removes a bit of the authenticity of that down south, backwoods environment and when the series moves to the big city for an episode, the locations might as well be right next to one another. It’s not ugly, it just looks like everything else and in a show that feels like a yellowing, slightly torn paperback, that’s missed in the aesthetics the most.
In a sea of television trying to feign the bombast, awe, and import of cinema, “Reacher” is an unfussy, slightly dopey salve. Sometimes all you want is a tight, little potboiler where an erudite caveman breaks people in two. Maybe it gets a little sensual, maybe someone fires off a faux philosophic crackerjack one-liner. Amazon’s “Reacher” fills that void. It’s a show stuck in time. A time when your father might kick back on the couch on a Saturday afternoon, have a beer or two, and fall asleep to the soothing sounds of fists hitting flesh. We all eventually become our parents and, if nothing else, “Reacher” is the perfect show to begin that process. [B]
“Reacher” premieres on Amazon Prime Video on February 4.