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Jack Reacher is best understood as a modern-day knight errant. That’s a sort-of damsel behind him.

I usually like to let a movie gestate a bit before I write a review. I don’t always know why I do that. Sometimes I guess it’s to put distance between myself and the initial reaction. Often, I like a movie way more than it deserves when I’ve just seen it. More rarely, I feel a disproportionate dislike for it. Usually for movies I “should” have liked, a second viewing clears that right up. I can usually predict when that’s going to be the case. That said, if I can come up with concrete reasons why a movie is good or bad, they tend to stick. It’s the emotional reaction I try to mitigate, being a big believer in harnessing as much critical objectivity as I can muster.

So having said all that, Jack Reacher is a pretty damn good movie. It’s witty, fast-paced, smart enough to be fun but not distancing, and has some pretty great action to boot. If you don’t like Tom Cruise, you’re probably destined to (wrongfully) not like this movie. This movie pretty much is Tom Cruise. The first credit even lists it as a “Tom Cruise” production. Now, I am not the sort that this bothers but if you are then you probably should keep that in mind as you read. Also note that Jack Reacher is a power fantasy, but it’s a fun one that let’s us in on that fun. This is the key ingredient to making a power fantasy work.

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A lone gunman opening fire seemingly indiscriminately is a bit of a sore subject in America these days.

Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise, duh) shows up in the aftermath of a mass shooting. The suspect is James Barr (Joseph Sikora), an ex-army sniper with a dark past. Reacher knows him and knows that past, and he shows up to make sure that Barr goes down for what he seems to have done. Teaming up with Barr’s defense counsel Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), who is on the case in defiance of her District Attorney father (Richard Jenkins), Reacher picks apart the too-perfect evidence and begins to uncover a conspiracy.

The majority of the fun in this movie is watching Reacher be a completely ridiculous specimen of uncut awesome. He’s knight-like, as I said, in that he has an unshakable moral code and the kind of ubermensch resourcefulness to enforce it. Everybody is always underestimating him and even though the movie walks the line tightly with removing the stakes due directly to his utter competence, it’s immense fun seeing and hearing all the ways Reacher outsmarts, outfights, and outballses everybody else in the film. That Reacher is being played by and as a man approaching middle age is not paid particularly close attention to by the film, but I can’t help but notice. Especially since half the cast are half his age. His primary antagonist, an unnamed gunman (Jai Courtney) is like a symbol of how you just can’t keep an old dog like Cruise/Reacher down no matter how many Channing Tatums you throw at them. Cruise even gets to authentically administer unexpectedly badass lines like the one I used to title this review. McQuarrie wisely keeps this shit back until it is proved to us, beyond all doubt, that Reacher is not fucking around.

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He may be above fucking her, but he’s not above making fun of her for being a slut.

This knight business matters because it gives Jack Reacher a sort of old school sensibility. You might remember movies with the same unflappable faith in their heroes form the 80’s. You might remember characters played by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, or Bruce Willis. Well, Tom Cruise is now right at home with them (maybe for the first time ever). While Jack Reacher doesn’t quite have the goony charm or unintentional hilarity of those 80’s actioners, it shares a soul with them. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie watched those movies. For that matter, so did Lee Child the writer of the Jack Reacher series of detective novels.

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The climactic action sequence is great, partially due to crusty Robert Duvall and partially due to awesome rain. 

Now though it’s a functioning power fantasy, Jack Reacher courts the same problems those types of films tend to have. For one thing, there are many parts where Reacher is just a little too good. It’s nice that we’re watching an unironic man-myth-legend film in 2012 but there are reasons that irony sort of took over these types of movies. People in the movie are just a bit too slow, necessitating scenes of them catching up to what both Reacher and the audience already know. Cruise’s little smirks sell it but it’s still an issue with having a protagonist with all the power of the writer’s omniscient hand behind him. Likewise, the twists are just a bit too obvious (granted, they weren’t trying too hard to be secretive or twisty here), and the villains just a little too vague or one-dimensional.

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Herzog’s character is a paradox. He both works and doesn’t.

The Zec (Werner Herzog, glorious glorious Werner Herzog) is the one exception. He doesn’t even do much beside tell menacing stories and glare at people with his dead eye, but he’s that one weird X-factor that noir writers love to throw in. He’s the one thing, besides Reacher himself, that makes this movie feel like it has a touch of the mythic. That said, the movie would be narratively the same were in it or not. His function then, if you care for such things, is one of tone and texture. A guy like The Zec does something to the feel of a movie like Jack Reacher. The little details, the cryptic past, and especially the way Reacher decides to deal with him… all of this coalesces into something a bit grander than just another investigative thriller.

It dovetails with the legend of Reacher, a man who can disappear and reappear at will, has photographic memory, can outfight five younger guys, and who also appears to be a world famous marksman (his performance at Wimbledon is mentioned and used as an hilarious justification for the entire presence and use of Robert Duvall in this movie).

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The almost-bromance here is a welcome addition to the story, though it is a bit sloppily justified. Still feels completely in-line with the haphazard way such things are executed in detective novels. Maybe that’s the point?

Most of the above actually serves as a pretty good description of the tropes that typify detective stories from Dennis Lehane and Lee Child back down to Chandler and Hammet. This is because Jack Reacher functions as an extra-violent and flashy version of exactly that web of tropes, characters, and ideas. It actually feels a lot closer in tone to Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie-Gennaro novels than Affleck’s amazing Gone Baby Gone does. They are, however, two very different approaches to what makes detective stories tick. Jack Reacher not concerned with reflecting on anyone’s morality or moral compromises. It’s smarts are in a different place, mostly apparent in structural things that lay outside of the movie itself. The smooth way it all comes together on-screen is the point. Jack Reacher is sort of like a Bourne movie if the Bourne movies were about detectives, petty corruption and violent crime. Reacher and Bourne are like distant cousins, driven by the same specter of the masculine myths that appeal so strongly in our culture.

Questioning those myths is work for a different movie. Jack Reacher revels in them, in the promise of the just man empowered to do justice. It’s not all that different from Batman, really, just approached from a somewhat different angle. There’s a reason this stuff appeals to men. Most of us want to reveal truth and punish falsehood. Most of us want to stand up for the girl in the back of the bus who’s getting smacked around by an asshole boyfriend, the wicked and unjust man who always threatens the stuff the good and just man strives to protect. Most of us never have opportunities to be that man in any big way, and real life has a way of making seemingly moral actions much more complex and layered and therefore questionable. Power fantasies like Jack Reacher serve, when as well done as this, to give us an outlet for those desires.

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And like, he can outfight five guys.

It’s as simple as having a hero to root for. Reacher, at one point, tells the villains that he isn’t a hero. But he is, and he’s exactly the kind of hero that we need to be both real and unreal at the same time. Tom Cruise may not always be anybody’s idea of a face for that figure, but he does his level best here and as has been true since time immemorial, Tom Cruise’s level best is pretty fucking good.

And even if he weren’t, Jack Reacher is the genuine article as a film. It doesn’t cheat, it doesn’t insult us, and it is imbued with awareness of what it is and what it’s for. 2012 has been a great year for films and while Reacher isn’t quite top tier (if only because it has been such a good year) it does serve to remind us that this type of movie doesn’t have to go the way of The Expendables but can come back, unexpected and unasked for, every so often to be what it is and ride a bus off into the sunset by the end. I’m glad Jack Reacher is one of the last films I’ll see this year. It’s always good to have a movie like this to anchor all the grander ones, to keep me grounded about what I love about movies and why this kind of thing is every bit as important as the prestige picture, the summer blockbuster, the sleeper hit, or the unseasonal surprise. 2012 has had more than one memorable example of each of these, and several in the category that Jack Reacher belongs to. I will likely not write another full review for a 2012 movie and it’s very good to go out with confident patter and a knowing smirk.

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My brother used to say I was in love with Tom Cruise.

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