the better truth

the better truth

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Jack Reacher (2012)

Bourne Reacher

Tom Cruise knows more than anyone the limits of being able to control events. “Jack Reacher” comes after a bruising public divorce humiliation which included controversy regarding his religion. The movie’s opening PR campaign was also muted due to the ‘real world’ events in Newtown CT.  The suits in charge felt that a feature that begins with 5 people being randomly executed by a sniper might not play well with an audience still grieving the massacre of first graders by a gun totting madman.  This is a tough break for the producers - in this case Mr. Cruise himself. Nevertheless the show must go on and the film did manage to be the #2 box office gross for the weekend.  I sat with half a dozen elderly people on a Sunday night for the early show.  I was startled by the MPAA rating.   The scene in which the fingerless Russian Gangster (with a German accent) tries to force a man to chew off his own hand might have earned the picture an “R”; but since there was no nudity and little cursing it received the“PG 13” seal of approval.  Perhaps this rating inadvertently led to the dearth of teenagers amongst the crowd;  yes it was Sunday, but during Christmas break.  Or perhaps Mr. Cruise is losing touch with his core fan base. He was nearly 40 when most of them were born. There were posters in the lobby for other old men of the screen: Arnold Schawarzenegger and Sean Penn, have projects due out in early January.  Perhaps the action/adventure genre is some sort of balm for a certain class of older male stars recovering from nasty public divorces.  Arnold’s trailer failed to be promising but it was actually more entertaining than Tom’s 2 hour feature.

For those not in the loop - Jack Reacher is a character in a very popular serialized set of action/adventure novels by Lee Child .  I have not read “One Shot”, from which this film is based, but it sticks to the basic outline as it appears online in Wikipedia:

In an innocent heartland city, five murders with six shots are done by an expert sniper. The police quickly identify and arrest a suspect, and build a slam-dunk case with iron-clad evidence. But the accused man claims he's innocent and says "Get Jack Reacher." Reacher himself sees the news report and turns up in the city. The defense is immensely relieved; but Reacher has come to bury the guy. Shocked by the request of the accused, Reacher sets out to confirm for himself the absolute certainty of the man's guilt, but comes up with more than he bargained for.

Maybe Mr. Cruise should have picked a cleaner plot along the lines of Mr. Child’s “Nothing to Lose”:

Based in Colorado, traveling from the town of Hope to the town of Despair, it soon becomes clear that Reacher is an unwelcome visitor in a town with a lot of secrets to hide. Reacher cannot resist the opportunity to explore these secrets further, especially the peculiar town owner who has employed the majority of the population to work within his recycling factory.

In any event it is clear we are engaged in formulaic entertainment and not Strindberg. Nothing wrong with that, as Mr. Child, whose real name is Mr. Grant, doesn’t pretend.... and who wants to sit through Strindberg in a movie theater (or maybe even a theater theater for that matter).  Wikipedia give us insight into his choice of the name of the ex-military supercop:

While unemployed and midway through writing the first novel with the character as yet unnamed, Lee Child visited his local supermarket with his wife. An elderly lady approached him and asked him to reach an item off a high shelf for her. His wife commented: "Hey if this writing thing doesn't work out, you can be a reacher in a supermarket."

It would be interesting to see a film about the life of Mr. Lee/Grant with some insight into his own need to change his nom de guerre. Mr. Cruise, however, need to focus on the Dough Ray Me. Audiences never warmed to Cruise as anything but a Mission Impossible sort of guy as his most recent “Rock of Ages” has proved (along with “Magnolia”, “Eyes Wide Shut”, “Lions for Lambs”...). Cruise’s middle-brow choice of material matches his choice of director. One might have thought Christopher McQuarrie’s writing credit on Mr. Cruise’s “Valkyrie” would have earned him a spot on a “do not call” list.  But in all deference to Mr. McQuarrie one senses Cruise-control in Reacher. Tom isn’t searching for direction in these self-produced projects as he has figured it all out. Unfortunately the audience is left with a stilted vanity set-piece rather than a solid action/adventure film.

Jack Reacher comes from a tradition of American super-heroes who are suspect by the public at large in their pursuit of a greater good. The fathers of this genre would be George Trendle and Fran Striker who gave us the Lone Ranger and his grand nephew (yes they are literally related) The Green Hornet.  “Why do you wear a mask Lone Ranger?” could easily be transposed to “Why do you live as a unemployed vagrant Mr. Reacher?”. A web poster named Jon Glade in an online response on Yahoo answers examines the Lone Ranger’s need for anonymity ( :

There is an interesting factor in American literature that is called "the American monomyth," which essentially concerns itself with someone who is a member of the masses coming forth to serve the cause of justice (or the needs of society, which may not always be the same thing), righting a bad situation, and then disappearing back into the masses. In other words, America is unique in the fact that it is predisposed to accepting the idea of anonymous avengers.

Whatever one thinks of Tom’s religion it is not hard to understand his ‘spirtual’ connection a loner who is selflessly battling the forces of evil despite popular opinion. To quote Tom’s infamous Scientology video in which he describes his devotion to the creed: “Being a Scientologist when you drive past an accident it’s not like anyone else. As you drive past, you know you have to do something about it, because you know you’re the only one that can really help” (   section 1:00-1:16) .  And how does public respond? The answer is online at:  . Tom and Jack have the weight of the world on their shoulders and no one really appreciates their struggle. Clumsy exposition gives us the bedrock of Jack’s lonely battle - he is a much decorated army hero who spent a career as a military policeman.  He has had run ins with the brass who demoted him only to have him rise to a high rank again.  Suddenly, without explanation, he returns to the US only to live an invisible life and collect cash from military a pension at various Western Union locations. As the story unfolds Tom/Jack reveals what makes him tick. In a monologue while looking out at a busy office building filled with workers: (am paraphrasing) ”I spent 25 years listening to my government tell me I was fighting for freedom... look at all those people slaving away out there;  overwhelmed by debt and worry... trying to make ends meet.... are they free? they just wish they could live like me.” Perhaps Tom/Jack overestimates the desire of the general public to live a life of violence and insecurity. Certainly Tom seems unable to distinguish his adolescent fantasies of a middle aged multi-millionaire movie star from the challenges facing working people.  The bottom line is that Jack/Tom has a personal moral code of right and wrong and his life will be dedicated to HIS truth. 

The most obvious parallel would be to the Bourne action/adventure series, featuring a disillusioned secret agent. Doug Liman’s films, unlike Tom’s Reacher, were compelling and fun. Matt Damon’s Bourne is a trusting good soldier who embarks on a journey of discovery where he, and the audience, experience the heartbreaking realization that his beloved country has betrayed him. Jack Reacher is merely giving speeches.  We are told, in painfully drawn narration, what he is like, what he has done.... we see  nothing of his journey of disaffection. Tom/Jack is a crack investigator, marksman, guerrilla fighter, memorizer of data... but his motives are drawn with the subtlety of a good guy’s white hat.   There is nothing behind his anger except the cold heroic bather. The appalling glacially paced script combined with an endless supply of comic book heavies headed by the aforementioned fingerless German/Russian, makes the experience akin to watching the one movie available on an airplane during heavy turbulence.  (Incidentally the evil bad guy is played by an actual German - the famed director Werner Herzog - who seems to be proving that behind every great european auteur is a burning desire to be a Hollywood Star... or at least stand near one on the big screen....e.g. Francois Truffaut in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” ).  It was nice to know that Robert Duvall can still be the eternal army cracker; although he has mellowed since “Apocalypse Now”.  The ingenue Rosamund Pike was forced to try and make us believe she found a shirtless Tom Cruise utterly irresistible.  Tom is hot... for a 50 year old guy. The idea that her character would have been drooling challenges credulity and speaks to the general disposition of people on the set refusing to tell Tom the emperor should put his shirt back on.  The stunt and fight scene shortcomings are too numerous to mention and one suspect’s Cruise’s megalomania at work - not one crew member had the courage to say, to borrow the pithy phrasing of the protagonist: “Tom this shit ain’t workin’”.  Actually that’s unfair, Reacher doesn’t seem to have the imagination to curse or the producers want to preserve the PG 13 rating - it would be more like - “Fight scenes... (beat, heavy breath) not workin’”.  This extends to the whole enterprise. In fact “Tom you’re old” might be added.

Unfortunately for future audiences more Reacher tombs are headed for the big screen. But we can all wish good things in the new year and maybe Tom will option the rights and decide to hand off the lead.  The bottom line is if you’re a omnipotent superstar you can create your own world. The challenge of making a great film about someone who lives in their own world is to work with people who collaboratively handle various aspects of the project.  Mr. Cruise has a reputation of being a doggedly hard worker and consummate professional. Unfortunately what is required is a steely determined artistic vision; which in turn requires trusting powerful department heads to execute a plan.  It is hard to imagine seasoned professionals screening rushes and not commenting on the obvious flaws. More likely the production crew stepped back and nodded:“hey Tom it’s your show... you’re in-charge”.  One can imagine Tom gleefully doing donuts in the souped up muscle cars; executing complicated maneuvers well into the wee hours of the morning until things were “perfect”.  Everyone must have known the scenes would be tedious.... but who wants to tell the boss... especially since he’s a decent guy who’s working so damn hard. In the end the key to total control is knowing who to trust. Judging by this feature Mr. Cruise lives in a very lonely world.... someone needs to tell him. Ironically Jack Reacher would have... but he wasn’t on set.

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