Credit: Chiabella James

Here it is: the sequel no one asked for to the movie that no one quite remembers. Yes, we’ve come to that late stage in Hollywood’s franchise economy where any film that narrowly outperforms its budget overseas automatically gets a follow-up. Yay, capitalism! For those coming to Jack Reacher: Never Go Back without having seen the first film, 2012’s Jack Reacher, the good news is a) it doesn’t really matter and b) you didn’t miss much. All you really need to know is that Tom Cruise is back as a loner ex-military police officer who drifts from town to town with only his toothbrush and unquenchable thirst to see wrongs righted (usually via his fists); that it was adapted from another of Lee Child’s countless coach-class potboilers; and that like its predecessor it’s an unremarkable placeholder until the next Mission: Impossible flick comes along.

The first Reacher film didn’t set the bar very high. But at least that film had some novelty value, a story with a few decent twists, and the inspired idea of casting Teutonic loon Werner Herzog as a villain who’d chewed off his own fingers in a Siberian gulag. If the rest of the movie wasn’t anything special, at least it had Cruise, who after 35 years on screen refuses to phone it in. He acts as if every film he’s in is his first…and maybe his last. He doesn’t know how to half-ass it.

Cruise is still huffing and puffing and dishing out bareknuckle justice in Never Go Back. But sadly, the novelty, the twists, and a baddie on par with the gonzo Herzog are AWOL. This is as blandly formulaic as sequels come. Directed by Edward Zwick (reteaming with Cruise after 2003’s The Last Samurai), the film makes almost no sense right out of the gate. It’s full of yawning plot holes, sloppy narrative shortcuts, and poorly-explained relationships between characters. It feels as if the first half hour of the movie is missing. As it stands, the film begins with Reacher calmly sitting in a diner as four goons howl in pain in the parking lot. He’s just beat the stuffing out of them, and the cops are on the way. But he doesn’t care because he’s Reacher. His chess-like mind is already several steps ahead of the law. All of which seems fair enough until you realize, ‘Hey, I paid ten bucks to see a movie whose main selling point is Tom Cruise wailing on people! Shouldn’t I get to see that?’

After that bait-and-switch gambit, we’re introduced to Maj. Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Apparently, she’s Reacher’s ally and long-distance phone pal. There’s really no rational (or even irrational) explanation given for why these two gab on the phone like awkwardly flirty teenagers other than the fact that she has the job that he used to have before he “woke up one morning and the uniform didn’t fit.” It just is. You have to accept it in order for the rest of the movie to work. I didn’t, and it mostly doesn’t.

Turner is framed for espionage, and it’s up to Reacher to break her out of the brig, go on the run, and figure out the whys and wherefores of the conspiracy behind it all. (It turns out to be the usual post-9/11 boilerplate about crooked military contractors selling arms.) The biggest wrinkle in the whole pulpy set-up is that Reacher is told that he may have a teenage daughter (Danika Yarosh), which complicates things since our lone-wolf hero now has to think about somebody else’s safety for once (seriously, this is the level of the film’s cliches).

It isn’t all dreary, though. Cruise, at 54, is still ageless and tireless as a movie star. No matter how many times you’ve seen him over the years, you still want to watch what he does—even if, as a character, Reacher isn’t the most natural fit for him. Not just because the actor is so physically different from the character on the page (where Reacher is 6′ 5″ and blond). But because Reacher is a brooder. He’s bottled up and withholding. Which means that to play him, Cruise has to deny what made him a star in the first place—his ebullience, his grin, his joy. Smulders, on the other hand, seems totally at ease outside of comedy. She even delivers a convincingly brutal beatdown. As Turner, a brassy khaki hardass who turns out to have a soft chewy center (of course), she verbally spars and parries with Cruise entertainingly enough that you’re (almost) willing to overlook all of the narrative nonsense swirling around them (like why she has so many scenes in terry-coth robes!?). They’re two stoic, stubborn alphas not used to being the sidekick. It’s a dynamic you’ve seen a million times before. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to watch. For a while, at least.

The problem is, aside from Cruise and Smulders, nothing else about Never Go Back really works or matters. Granted, we’re now only two films deep into the Jack Reacher franchise, but that seems like a fair enough sample size to come to the conclusion that he’s no Ethan Hunt—and never will be. Not every middling box-office success needs to be spun off into a franchise. Especially when it results in sequels as aggressively mediocre as this. Tom Cruise deserves better. So does the audience. C

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
  • Movie
  • 118 minutes