Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Cast: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Danika Yarosh, Aldis Hodge, Patrick Heusinger, Holt McCallany, Austin Hebert, Robert Catrini, Robert Knepper

Director: Edward Zwick

Writers: Richard Wenk, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz


When the first Jack Reacher came out I remember there being some controversy over the choice to cast the 5’7” Tom Cruise as the tall, physically dominating protagonist from the Lee Child novel. As someone who had never read these books, I just went in expecting a Tom Cruise movie. By casting Cruise, the studio has made a clear decision that deems Jack Reacher’s character as irrelevant; you will instead be watching Tom Cruise play Tom Cruise. Still, whether you love his movies or hate them, one cannot deny the appeal he has. One of the things I like about Cruise is that no matter what movie he’s in, good or bad, he always gives 100%. In a career spanning almost four decades, not once has this man ever phoned it in. His energy, enthusiasm and charisma are still as palpable today as they were in the 80s and he shows no sign of slowing down. Thus, when a series like Jack Reacher comes along, a series that is so obviously nothing more than a star vehicle, I think it’s worth remembering that Cruise is a star for a reason. He was pretty much born for it.

Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) is back as he heads over to his military headquarters to meet with a new acquaintance, Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Upon arriving he learns from Colonel Sam Morgan (Holt McCallany) that Turner is being detained under the charge of espionage. At this same time Reacher also learns that a paternity suit has been filed against him, claiming he is the father of the 15-year-old Samantha Dayton (Danika Yarosh). Believing that Turner is being framed, Reacher infiltrates the prison where she’s being held and breaks her free. The two must go on the run and are forced to bring Samantha along when her connection to her supposed father places her in danger. Together the three of them must evade the military forces pursuing them and uncover the truth behind this conspiracy so that they may clear their names.

As is often the case with these films, the story is almost immaterial. No one really cares about the government conspiracy, it’s just a backdrop that allows Tom Cruise and Cobie Smulders to punch a few faces and run around for a bit. The only thing that really matters is that they have a teenage girl running along with them, creating a family dynamic between three characters who don’t know how to act like a family. This is the film’s strongest point, and its success is creditable more to the actors than it is to the writing. Cruise, for instance, conveys more deeply than the dialogue ever could this idea that Reacher cannot live a normal life. He beats up bad guys because it’s the only thing he’s good at and he’s constantly on the run because he has no responsibilities tying him down or holding him back. He doesn’t know the first thing about being in a relationship with either a girlfriend or a daughter. Morgan is similarly single-minded in her military professionalism whereas Samantha comes from a broken home. Their attempt to create a surrogate family with each other could have been fascinating in the hands of stronger writing and direction. Here, it offers some entertaining moments between the punching and kicking.

The action is pretty standard for the most part. It is interesting to see Tom Cruise share some of these scenes with Cobie Smulders, since he tends to be solely front and centre in these films, and that discord is brought into play. While they are hiding in New Orleans, Reacher hopes that he can assign Turner the role of ‘mother’, which would allow him to go out alone to do the ‘real’ work. Turner of course both resents and rejects that assignment because babysitting a teenager is just about the most useless thing she could possibly do in this situation. She needs to be in the field just like Reacher and he sure as hell isn’t going to stop her. What I would give for a screenplay worthy of this conflict. Yarosh is serviceable as the young, rebellious girl who may or may not be Reacher’s daughter, but sometimes it feels like her character only exists to create problems for the grown-ups to solve.

As far as Tom Cruise action movies go, Never Go Back is about what you’d expect. Smulders is a great foil to Cruise and the family dynamic is quite interesting, but these qualities are let down by the sub-par writing and generic direction they were given. A campy villain within the vein of Werner Herzog would also have been welcome (this principle applies to action films in general). There are some good action set pieces, but nothing like the extravagant, stylised scenes you’d see in a Mission: Impossible film. That’s fine if you’re looking for something more down to earth, but those movies are entertaining for a reason. The interplay between Reacher, Turner and Samantha could have allowed for a more fulfilling experience if it had been allowed to attain the dramatic heights within reach. Instead the movie offers a few entertaining scenes with a couple of good jokes thrown in. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is by no means a failure but it could have and should have strived to be better.

★★★

Advertisements

The Magnificent Seven

Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sansmeier, Peter Sarsgaard, Haley Bennett

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Writers: Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk


In making this film Fuqua has given himself not one, but two cinematic legacies to live up to. First is Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Seven Samurai, arguably the greatest and most influential picture ever made by the great Japanese director. The second is John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, the lesser Hollywood remake that nevertheless brought its own style and charm to the story. The former is a groundbreaking epic of masterful artistry and immense depth. The latter is a classic American western made enormously watchable by its terrific production and all-star cast. Neither of the shadows cast by these films can be ignored. Although this film takes the name of the Sturges’ film, it still cites the Kurosawa epic as its source material. Thus, whether the film wants to be an entertaining escapist spectacle or an innovative work of art (or, dare I say, both), the standard is high on both fronts.

The mining town of Rose Creek is attacked by a troop of bandits led by the corrupt entrepreneur Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who imposes his will by slaughtering many of the locals. Thus Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and Teddy Q (Luke Grimes) set out on a mission in search of help. They find it in the warrant officer Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) who accepts the contract upon learning of Bogue’s involvement. He sets out to recruit a team to help him with this endeavour, starting with the gambler John Faraday (Chris Pratt). The two are later joined by the sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-wielding comrade Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hun), the crazed but capable tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), the disreputable Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and the Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeir). The seven of them together come to Rose Creek where they put into motion a plan to defend the town and its people from Bogue’s forces.

One of the strong points shared by both the Kurosawa and the Sturges films is the simplicity of their stories. Seven diverse warriors band together to combat a single threat. It is this simplicity that allowed both stories to be strongly driven by character and action. Fuqua’s film has this same simple setup; the problem is that he offers little of substance in its execution. Despite having a terrific cast at his disposal, there are few moments when they are truly able to come together and bring some life to the story. This is largely because the characters are defined more by star power than they are by their personalities. This can work on occasion. Chris Pratt, for example, does well in what is very much a ‘Chris Pratt’ role: a cocky but charming scoundrel. Denzel Washington however is cast as a strong, silent type and is thus allowed few opportunities to display his formidable on-screen presence and charisma. The chemistry between the actors is sometimes there, as in one scene where Washington and Hawke revive some of the energy that made them a great duo in Training Day, but little of it adds either drive or weight to the narrative.

There was certainly potential for a great movie here. The greatest realisation of that potential is the criminally underused Sarsgaard as the overtly evil Bogue. The cast is easily this film’s strongest asset and it’s a shame that Fuqua was unable to take full advantage of it. Still, for some viewers at least, the assemblage of these actors in this setting will be enough. I did like that the film took strides to include greater diversity in its ensemble, incorporating men of different ethnicities who showcase singular styles of fighting. This pays off in the third act when the final battle takes place. What we get here is more than simple horse riding and gunfire. During this climax Billy Rocks brings his knives into the gunfight, the ox-like Jack Thorne bull rushes his foes into submission and Red Harvest looses arrows left, right and centre. The build up towards this fight may have been lacklustre and the major character deaths that follow may not resonate in any meaningful way but, in terms of pure spectacle, it’s still a pretty great climax.

While there isn’t anything substantially wrong with this film, as far as remakes go, there is nothing that allows The Magnificent Seven to stand on its own two feet. Compared to the Sturges’ classic it is a lesser imitation. To even bother comparing it to Kurosawa’s masterpiece would be almost like comparing a finger painting to the ‘Mona Lisa’. It is a sometimes entertaining but ultimately hollow film that feels more like a star vehicle than it does a western. It seemed to me that the film was more interested in cashing in on the ensemble blockbuster trend started by The Avengers than it was in telling a great story. The western setting felt artificial and the movie’s discussion on the themes of honour, justice and sacrifice felt insincere. This film could have been something special, if only it had half of the emotion and depth of the films that influenced it. Instead The Magnificent Seven stands as a picture of unrealised possibility and unfulfilled promise.

★★