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posted: 12/20/2012 6:00 AM

Crime thriller 'Reacher' a reach for Cruise

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  • In "Jack Reacher," Tom Cruise plays a former military cop investigating a Pittsburgh sniper case.

      In "Jack Reacher," Tom Cruise plays a former military cop investigating a Pittsburgh sniper case.

  • Ex-military agent Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) gets unlikely backup from a gun store owner (Robert Duvall) in the action film "Jack Reacher."

      Ex-military agent Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) gets unlikely backup from a gun store owner (Robert Duvall) in the action film "Jack Reacher."

  • Video: JACK REACHER trailer

 
 

There's no way anyone can watch the opening of Christopher McQuarrie's action thriller "Jack Reacher" -- a shooter randomly guns down five people along a Pittsburgh waterway -- without being reminded of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre last week.

Paramount Pictures postponed last Saturday's Pittsburgh premiere of "Jack Reacher." New York's Lincoln Center pulled the plug on its Monday night fundraising premiere.

But the studio stuck with its Dec. 21 national release, perhaps banking on the movie's star power and built-in market appeal (British author Lee Child has published 17 Jack Reacher novels) to overcome the emotional association with the school shootings.

So, it requires a few scenes into "Jack Reacher" to shake off current events and become engaged with the story.

The Pittsburgh shootings, of course, hardly turn out to be random. Evidence leads Det. Emerson (David Oyelowo) to arrest James Barr (Joseph Sikora). During interrogation, Barr writes one sentence: "Get Jack Reacher!"

Child's strange and iconic hero, an ex-Army investigator, lives as a technical Luddite, refusing to use cellphones, computers, weapons or credit cards. He doesn't even own a car.

When he needs new clothes, Reacher simply buys them at Goodwill, and then donates his old ones.

In the books, Reacher is also 6 feet, 6 inches tall, and sticks out like a towering oak tree in the desert.

In the movie, Reacher is played by ... Tom Cruise?

Yes, Tom Cruise, who is not 6 feet, 6 inches tall. But he is a producer on this movie, adapted by McQuarrie from Child's ninth Reacher novel "One-Shot."

Cruise's trial-size Reacher meets with Barr's attorney, the fetching and idealistic Helen (Rosamund Pike), who's also the daughter of the tough local DA (DeKalb native Richard Jenkins).

Reacher doesn't seem interested in defending Barr. In fact, Reacher believes Barr to be guilty, having committed mass killings during a military stint.

Then, as he sifts through the evidence, Reacher begins to doubt his rush to judgment. Too many small details don't add up, and "Jack Reacher" turns into one of those movies you could advertise as "things are not what they seem!"

As impressive as McQuarrie's credentials are (he wrote the masterpiece script to "The Usual Suspects"), he delivers a purely conventional crime drama, albeit one without the obligatory romantic subplot or the hero's endearing standard-issue character arc.

A nighttime car chase between Reacher's borrowed sports car and a silver Audi provides a few thrills, with the great Caleb Deschanel's camera work pumping vibrancy into every film frame.

Not so with Cruise's low-key performance. He tamps down his trademark bravado, so he and Pike struggle to keep a few lengthy exchanges crisp.

It takes sassy Robert Duvall as a good ol' boy gun range owner to supply some snappy repartee and fun showboating when he agrees to help Reacher invade a construction site where the bad guys are holding Helen as bait.

The movie's chief disappoint: wasting celebrated film director Werner Herzog as the enigmatic villain, The Zec ("the prisoner"). With dead eyes and an ominous accent, The Zec is a nasty survivalist who once chewed off his own fingers to stay alive.

So why wasn't this character, worthy of a James Bond thriller, given a little more screen time?

It's just one of several shortcomings in "Jack Reacher," clearly a project that Cruise views as the start of a lucrative film franchise.

But given his unmemorable performance as the hero, and McQuarrie's conservative approach, a successful film franchise might just be out of reach.

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