Spoiler alert: Despite its title, Jack Reacher does come back. Now that this misnomer has been addressed, we can dive into the tedious thriller, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back,” another vehicle for Tom Cruise to kick ass and take names. Like a glorified and dire episode of one of the multitude crime shows on network television — “CSI,” “NCSI,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Criminal Minds,” “Person Of Interest,” take your pick — ‘Never Go Back’ falls back on cliche, hard glances and serious tough guy talk and action.
In this episode of the story, the nomadic Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) is still on the fringes, drifting and hitchhiking off the grid (none of us buy this for even a second). A brief early prologue with Reacher in handcuffs acts as a reminder at just how canny and resourceful Reacher is, aided by plentiful brawn and brains.
Plot and story are always a wash in ‘Jack Reacher’ films, but the narrative goes something like this: After assisting in apprehending a bunch of crooked cops in the aforementioned prelude, Reacher is on the phone with Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), his successor in an elite military police unit. They’ve never met, but maintain a flirtatious relationship by phone anytime he has the excuse to call. On his way to Washington D.C., Reacher is surprised to hear Turner has been suddenly jailed for espionage and sensing a hinky frame-up job, he goes on mission to rescue the girl.
During their on the run exploits, Reacher finds out he may have a daughter — a paternity test is pending — so he rescues her too (she’s played by Danika Yarosh) and the trio form an ad-hoc family, as they try and prove Turner’s innocence. The dynamic is rather hilarious too, Smulders as the sympathetic mom, Cruise as the hard ass dad and Yarosh as the petulant teenager. If the plot sounds like it’s ripped from a dime store novel, that’s because it is, and ‘Never Go Back’ is essentially an excuse for Cruise to indiscriminately bust skulls and crack bones. While director Werner Herzog was rather terrible as the villain in the first “Jack Reacher, compared to the bland antagonist of ‘Never Come Back,’ his broad campiness would at least bring some life to the picture. In this installment, the bad guy is simply called The Hunter (Patrick Heusinger), a special forces black ops mercenary who is apparently the killer and tracker from hell. A one-note Terminator, The Hunter betrays even those who have hired him, and his unquenchable bloodlust puts Reacher in his sights.
If there’s a equivalency between shouty cop cliches and scowling, “stand down, soldier!” military cliches, ‘Never Go Back’ is it. Much of the film is locked-jaw stares, gritted teeth grimaces and chest-to-chest Alpha Male posturing (even Cobie Smulders gets to exact her tough femininity on Reacher in a scene that reads, “lets give her some agency”).
Filmmaker Edward Zwick shoots the film with competency, the action sequences are taut, the close-ups of Cruise’s firm jaw effective, but otherwise the movie is shot in total anonymity; Zwick helms the film like there’s a lunch break that’s just minutes away, and some praise should go to his second unit team that does much of the heavy lifting.
Continuity isn’t a problem since there is none. Much like Lee Child’s novels, ‘Never Go Back’ is serialized and drops the drifter into a new complication. And while that helps the storytellers and director Ed Zwick, it just makes the whole affair feel that much more surface and disposable.
A special shout-out should go to the sound design and mixing crews, as they render every punch like a bruising mash to the face, and each bone break sounds excruciating. And the violence is swift and sometimes unrelenting, Jason Bourne-like without the smarts. But ‘Never Go Back’ is also a testament to the backwards MPAA system. Reacher gives and takes a brutal beating, snaps a man’s neck, and victims are casually shot in the head (in one instance, right in the throat), and yet, somehow the movie still manages to land a PG-13 rating.
“Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” isn’t a throwaway, and mainstream action/thriller fans should come out more than satisfied at the visceral nature of the film. But anyone hoping for more than a superficial on-the-run chase movie will probably wish Reacher had stayed home, instead of going back. [C-]