RECAP: Jack Reacher

Jack Reacher (2012): Christopher McQuarrie

Lee Child’s novel One Shot served as the source material for Jack Reacher. Four years on, I can’t decide which title is better.

“One Shot” is practically meaningless, the least sexy title in recent memory. On the other hand, “Jack Reacher” is…quite a name. Better to be weird than boring.

Jack Reacher limped into theaters and strode out with more than $200 million global box office. That’s money that Tom Cruise gets you.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: An off-the-grid ex-military cop investigates the alleged murder of five Pittsburgh citizens by a former Army sniper. 

Hero (8/10)

Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) will find you should you cross him. He might kill you. He won’t care. Reacher has no fear of the law, the bad guys, anyone, because he is a ghost, and just as untouchable.

With his trademark intensity, Cruise becomes an anti-hero, perhaps the most self-assured man to ever live. And that’s a good thing, because Reacher needs every ounce of that confidence to discover who framed James Barr, arrested for the murder of five Pittsburgh civilians walking along the Allegheny River one morning.

Reacher learns of Barr’s alleged murder while watching CNN. He springs into action. He buys clothes off the rack at Goodwill. He withdraws from his military pension. He boards a bus and travels to Pittsburgh to show up outside the office of the District Attorney, just as he and the case’s lead detective discuss Reacher’s accomplishments.

Born without a middle name, his first trip to America was to attend West Point. He earned the Bronze and Silver Stars and the Defense Superior Service Medal. “Had to look up that last one,” lead detective Emerson (David Oyelowo) says.

No credit cards, no email, no PO Box, no phone number–you don’t find Reacher; he finds you.

Well, Reacher, James Barr wanted you, what are you going to do about it? “I came here to bury him,” Reacher tells his lead counsel, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike).

Reacher dutifully investigates Barr’s case, certain he is guilty. He tells Helen the story of the time Iraq when he shot four defense contractors as they lingered in an alley. The Army disappeared the murders because those victims had just stumbled out of a “rape rally.”

Slowly, Reacher figures out what we, the viewers, have known from Scene One. James Barr, the man who shot 2,000 rounds a week in Iraq but never in combat, didn’t kill those five people.

There’s a scene in the terrific 2002 film, also a Cruise feature, Minority Report, in which a detective played by Colin Farrell investigates an actual murder scene in a city that hasn’t seen a murder in many years. He describes the crime scene as having “an orgy of evidence.”

Reacher visits the crime scene and discovers the same. He slowly realizes that Barr is being set up just too perfectly, especially because no one would pay for parking, and Barr wouldn’t choose the parking deck to shoot from, he would pick the highway crossing over the walkway where the people were murdered.

Though Reacher joins Helen as her legal aid, he’s the one calling the shots. He forces Helen to talk to the victims’ families. That goes…poorly for her, but she learns about the actual intended victim and the four others killed to hide that fact.

While Helen works the legal ends of the case, Reacher works the other ends. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: guy walks into a bar, beats up five guys hired to pummel him. Talk about punch line.

Reacher probes a drug dealer’s house where he nearly dies. He drives through Pittsburgh with a stolen car while the cops chase him, not escape the cops, but to find out who is trying to kill him.

Reacher leaves Pittsburgh after exonerating James Barr. The only question he leaves unanswered: is Reacher better at fighting or thinking? Save it for the sequel.

Villain (6/10)

Nefarious shell corporation Lebendauer wants to help redevelop Pittsburgh. Sounds generous, but if you own a construction company and you don’t sell it to them BANG, you die.

That’s what happens to Oline Archer, which sounds like the name of a construction company, but is actually the name of the person who owns a construction company. She backed out at the last minute from signing away her husband’s company, making herself the target for Lebendauer’s chief assassin, Charlie (Jai Courtney).

But who is behind Lebendauer? The Zec. “Zec” means prisoner in Russian, and that prisoner is played by the insane Werner Herzog.

Werner Herzog, good guy
Werner Herzog, good guy

Look at this photo of Werner Herzog. It’s the lead photo from his personal website. Now imagine his left eye cloudy. That guy should scare the shit out of you. And Herzog does.

We first meet The Zec more than halfway through the movie. He waits in a dark alley to discuss matters of the case with one of his underlings, the flunky who hired five guys to beat up Reacher.

The Zec came into his own suffering as a prisoner in Siberia. It’s not much of a stretch to say that his time as a prisoner affected his personality and world view. “I spent my first winter wearing a dead man’s coat,” he says.

The Zec then shows off his fingers, or rather where his fingers once were. To the underling he explains that he bit off those fingers to avoid losing them to frostbite. He shows off his other hand, with one finger remaining. “These I gave up to avoid working in the sulphur mine.” All this in Herzog’s whispery Germanic gravel voice.

The underling has ruined The Zec’s carefully crafted situation by involving Reacher. “We got a way of doing things so they stay done,” The sniper says.

The Zec wants to see if this underling has what it takes to survive. “Show me you are rare,” he says. The Zec’s task is simple–bite off your fingers or I’ll kill you. The guy asks for a knife. “Did I have a knife in Siberia?” Then he offers words of encouragement, like a basketball coach encouraging a point guard. “You can do it.”

The guy tries a little and chickens out. “Always the bullet,” The Zec says. “I don’t understand.” This concludes another episode of Werner Herzog’s lifelong study of human survival strength.

The Zec recedes into the proverbial night until the final showdown opposite Reacher. The Zec sits in the quarry office, waiting, doing nothing. Literally nothing. He sits there, sometimes offering philosophic thoughts of death to Helen, his prisoner. “It will change you,” he says, when she sees “how the soldier dies.” It’s funny that he calls Reacher “the soldier.”

The Zec’s worldview is harsh. “We take what can be taken.” To him, everyone is either a prisoner or a guard. Once the prisoner, he aims to be the guard now. Mercy has no place in The Zec’s world.

Action/Effects (8/10)

Most of Jack Reacher‘s action I will describe in later scenes in greater detail. This is a movie that does action right. By “right” I mean accurately.

Jack Reacher treats its combatants as if they live in the real world. Imagine that! Consider the car chase through central Pittsburgh. Reacher, one of the henchman, and the cops drive through the city. But it’s is not a city devoid of cars. Reacher hits several, and not at high speed. He crashes into barriers and walls. Once, his car wouldn’t start easily.

In the climactic fist fight, Reacher and his sniper counterpart, the man who murdered all those innocent people, fight for 20 seconds before sucking wind and haggardly trying again.

Even the shooting is close to accurate. Reacher has to run through a gauntlet of protective rocks to reach a quarry pit office near the movie’s end. This scene reminded me of contestants dodging tennis balls shot at them by spandex-clad American Gladiators.

Reacher recruits back up in the form of an ancient craggy Marine to snipe for him. Cash (Robert Duvall) shoots at the three men trying to shoot Reacher. Cash never hits anyone; his bullets ping off the enormous Earth movers. That scares the villains enough to buy Reacher running time. Characters are not shot, only shot at, much more like the real world.

If you want zooming cars, full blood packs, and dead-eye snipers, pick a different film. I was glad to see something different and more realistic.

As for Reacher’s fighting skills, he’s the best. He beats down, while barely trying, five drunk frat-aged dudes outside a bar and two hired assassins in a bathroom. Could a Marine with nothing to lose do that? (Shoulder shrug.)

Sidekicks (3/8)

Reacher loves to work alone. But sometimes the world conspires against him, and he must join with the forces of good to prosecute the forces of bad.

Rosamund Pike plays Helen Rodin, defense attorney to James Barr, the accused mass murderer, and technically boss to Jack Reacher.

Helen’s father is District Attorney Rodin, a man who loves capital cases and has never lost one. James Barr looks to him like the most wounded rabbit to a hungry fox. Helen takes Barr’s case, because, well, she wants to? Reacher tries to pin down her reasons: Helen’s desperate.

But she’s capable. Helen fights doggedly to get her father to go after Lebendauer, convinces Reacher to help her, and begs Barr to wake up from the coma he got after a prison beatdown. Unfortunately, Helen Rodin fell into a case much deeper than she could climb out of.

How do I know Helen was in over her head? Just watch Pike act. Few of her scenes aren’t punctuated with the Pike-eyed stare, a wide-eyed stare but wider than one any other actor can manage.

Helen begs Reacher to join her in helping prevent Barr’s execution. Reacher immediately takes over the case, forcing Helen to visit the victims’ families before agreeing to help further. He drives the investigation and discovers the enemy’s motive for killing five people outside PNC Park.

Helen finds Barr’s gun range at Reacher’s request, and she pulls files on Oline Archer against Reacher’s judgment. Guess which act gets her in trouble?

Helen and Reacher have a strange relationship. She begs him to put a shirt on in his hotel room. “This is my shirt,” Reacher says, clutching his only shirt, the one he was washing in the sink. Later Reacher tricks her into thinking he’s coming on to her when he gets close to her and gives her her keys.

Pike and Cruise always seem to miss their marks in scenes together. When speaking they stand close, as if they boarded a crowded elevator. It adds sexual tension, but in a forced way.

Henchmen (3/8)

The Zec may be the villain, the Man on the Grassy Knoll, as Helen calls him, but he’s not featured much. He has his underlings do most of the dirty work work.

Chief among bad guys is Jai Courtney as, well, as a bad guy. I’m pretty sure his character is never named, despite being the person who actually murders the five people walking along the Allegheny River. In the credits he’s named Charlie, but I’ll call him Sniper.

Sniper opens Jack Reacher by coolly driving a white van to a parking deck, paying for parking, and shooting five people to death with six shots, from hundreds of yards distance.

And liking it. Sniper kills two other people in the film, one an underling and the other an innocent woman caught up in events beyond her control. Each time Sniper smiles. Killing is a joy for him, perhaps a religious experience. Before the climactic tussle with Reacher, Sniper kneels before his weapon, meditating. He craves the pink mist.

He’s a terrific killer. Poor Sandy, a woman who didn’t deserve anything, dies beneath Sniper when the latter smothers her with one hand. After he shoots an employee who wouldn’t bite off his own fingers, Sniper draws out a bone saw from his leather jacket. Sniper is a guy who carries a bone saw in his driving outfit.

The Zec’s other helper turns out to be John Law, in this film named Detective Emerson. Emerson is a gaunt, well dressed cop who seems out of his league on either side of the law. Perhaps his compromised nature literally wears him thin.

Emerson tries to get Barr to confess early. That’s how things go in Pittsburgh. Barr refuses, instead scrawls on a notepad GET JACK REACHER. Emerson does, and you can see his life slowly drain as he describes, invesitgates, and pursues, Reacher.

When Emerson ends the film stuck in the quarry office with the Zec, he appears more uncomfortable than Helen, the prisoner. We don’t know what the Zec has planned for Emerson after the Reacher business, but we can asuume it won’t be good.

With strong but rare Zec scenes, his henchmen nicely fill that void.

Stunts (6/6)

Reacher, for a ghost, is easy to touch. He’s not a sniper; he’s a guy who likes the quick and dirty fight, close-quarters combat, and he gets several chances in Jack Reacher.

Reacher’s first fight comes outside a bar. He’s surrounded by five guys, but in Reacher Fight Math, 5=3. The last two always run, he reasons.

Reacher’s fighting style is quick and powerful. He doesn’t speak about his ethos, only shows it. That’s good storytelling. The lead guy, Reacher dodges a punch, ducks, and elbows his nose. “You’re OK,” Reacher says before kicking his groin. It’s rude to beat a man and lie to him, Jack.

The other four guys take swings at him, but they’ve never fought before, it seems, as Reacher toys with them. In the end, the last two do run away.

Fast forward to Reacher’s driving skills. A terrific car chase pits Reacher, Sniper, and the police, led by Emerson, zooming across an empty Pittsburgh inner city.

The chase starts outside the Three Rivers Motel, where Reacher pulls in to find the parking lot crawling with cops and spots the body of Sandy being wheeled into an ambulance. Out from the lobby strolls an agitated Emerson, who spots Reacher, clenches his fist, and draws his gun.

Reacher peels backward onto the street. He chases Sniper while avoiding the PPD. Reacher catches Sniper on one of the bridges in a city full of them, bumping Sniper’s rear and side. Sniper’s in to violent behavior.

The cars peel off the bridge and separate into a tunnel, Sniper going the right way and Reacher the wrong one. The hero has a tough time weaving through oncoming traffic, treating the tunnel like a demolition derby, and mounting the side wall once. Sniper could have done his taxes while driving through his side of the tunnel.

Also in the tunnel, but behind, is Emerson and his cop cronies. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel captures each driver by splitting the screen, framing each face slightly left of center. On Reacher’s car, the camera frames the whole car, pans toward Cruise, and zooms onto his face. This trick grounds the chase on Pittsburgh’s streets, and not a Los Angeles back lot.

Sniper loses Reacher in one of the many alleys. Reacher (is he predator or prey, or both?) finds Sniper, who smashes Reacher’s (borrowed) car for a turn. More driving. Reacher hits Emerson’s car. More driving.

Finally Reacher turns onto a street with people walking, the only one in Pittsburgh, perhaps, and lets the car go. Reachers slows it, opens the door, walks out of it, and blends into a crowd awaiting a bus. He eludes Emerson, who stands six feet away.

The driving and fighting in Jack Reacher stand out for doing less. McQuarrie eschews quick cuts, opting for downplayed action scenes that resonate for their brevity and realism. Reacher doesn’t narrowly escape car crashes, he crashes at low speed, hitting at least three in his chase, and not all on purpose.

Reacher drives over curbs and crushes protective water barrels. Missing are the quick zooms and close ups on foot pedals and hands on gear shifts. In their places are long cuts and cars that hit stuff, like in real life.

Fist fights are perhaps more accurate. Sniper and Reacher square off at film’s end. The two hit each other four times and are exhausted. They go through three rounds of blows, each time winded. Just like you can’t sprint a marathon, you can’t punch people without gloves in the middle of the night for ten minutes without taking a breath.

Climax (4/6)

Reacher calls Helen and tells her that they will never catch him. “I believe you,” Helen says, after Reacher forces her to. The Zec knows who Helen is, and knows who Reacher is, and to get latter off their case they kidnap the former and bring her to a rock quarry.

Reacher arrives, when he was good and ready, at the local quarry pit, where all villains hang out with kidnapped defense attorneys. But he isn’t alone. He’s brought with him “Gunny,” also known as Cash, the guy from the gun range and former Marine.

“If I had a dollar for every time the Army called the Corps for help,” Gunny says. Then, to offer his aid, he hands Reacher a knife. Doesn’t want Reacher’s prints all over his guns.

The sniper murderer kneels and prepares for more murder. Gunny is ready too, blindly listening for Sniper’s position.

Reacher, using his third car of the film, and second he wrecks, drives Helen’s Mercedes in reverse, watching the backup camera, down the boulder-lined gravel road into the pit. And yeah, it gets shot up, but boxes of evidence deflect the bullets. This is a great metaphor: the truth can stop the most dangerous opponents.

Reacher has to bail on the car when the camera is shot out and he hits a rock. He rolls out after Gunny finally cranks out some shots at the sniper and the two gunmen with machine guns near the trailer, sliding behind the boulders.

Reacher comically checks his knife with a look of, “Are you kidding me?” He slides behind more rocks as Gunny provides cover and is fired upon. Reacher even loses the knife during one run between rocks.

A Russian (?) bad guy walks toward Reacher’s hiding spot. He fires three rounds at Reacher, three rounds at Gunny. Three at Reacher, three at Gunny. It’s a good system, but Reacher exploits it with a rock to his face.

Sniper turns a light toward Gunny. But Reacher has a gun now, and both good guys shoot at Sniper, the Marine hitting the rifle.

Reacher shoots the other guy shooting at him and kicks in the trailer door, only to find it empty, with a convenient map to the main office. He needs transport, and steals a rock lifter. It rains.

Sniper goes back to the main office and sends two goons to their deaths. Turns out that Reacher didn’t drive the rock carrier to the office, sending Gunny to do the job, as Reacher followed on foot and shot them down.

Sniper comes out, sees the dead men, gets caught by Reacher. In rain-slick coats they fight hand-to-hand. Sniper’s pumped. Reacher charges Sniper and drives him into the wall. Sniper responds with three kidney blows.

That’s enough to tire them both. Reacher delivers the next four blows, including a punch to the back of the leg that sounded as if it broke the bone but couldn’t possibly.

They’re exhausted now. Sniper has a knife in his boot, because what bad guy doesn’t have a knife or gun there? Reacher blocks effectively again and again. If I scored this fight he’d win all the rounds.

Emerson and Helen listen as Reacher snaps Sniper’s wrist and plunges his boot into his face.

Emerson hides behind Helen. Reacher’s hand shakes as he stands beside the door to the office, knowing his adversaries are inside. “Nobody would have thought to dump that meter, not even me,” Reacher says as he enters the doorway and shoots Emerson without killing Helen.

The Zec sits there like a squirrel caught stealing birdseed, not yet sure about running. He smiles in the way all Siberian prisoners smile: with a sneer. Reacher doesn’t know who he is. Helen informs him. The Zec taunts Reacher, asking him which one is more likely to go to jail, or, as The Zec refers to it, “a retirement home.” Reacher agrees and shoots him in head.

It stops raining.

Jokes (1/4)

Jack Reacher is not a comedic guy. Constantly on the run, he fights for justice and ability to withdraw a military pension. Any jokes he makes inadvertent.

The movie’s funniest scene takes place in a bathroom. Reacher patrols the house of the guy who hired the goons that tried to beat him. Confused? OK. Reacher at bad guy’s house. In the bathroom, Reacher stands in a doorway, not watching his back.

A bad guy cracks a bat into Reacher’s skull, which could have killed him, but it simultaneously hit the doorway. Dazed, Reacher stumbles into the bathroom and into the bathtub.

The two goons fight each other to bash Reacher with their bat and iron. But the room is so small that they hit more stuff than they hit Reacher. The mirror, the shower curtain rod, tiles, the window, and each other’s faces are hit and smashed without further harming Reacher.

Credit to the two actors for their Stooge-level pratfall skills. I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve been in some bathrooms in my day. It shouldn’t be that hard to knock out a guy who’s halfway there. They sold that room as tighter than a port-a-john.

I’ve long advocated that Tom Cruise is not funny. But he can well deliver funny lines. He tells Sniper, over the phone, “I’d like to kill you.” Like to. Then he says he’ll drink his blood from a boot.

Sandy explains her role in trying to beat up Reacher. “You were supposed to be a pervert.” When Sandy’s alleged brother tells Reacher not to mess with his sister, Reacher asks, “She a good kisser?”

Setting (2/4)

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is enjoying a renaissance in the 21st century. Tech businesses are filling Steel Town. Aerial shots follow Barr’s white van during the opening credits, flying over small brick homes and numerous steel bridges.

The car chase traverses much of Pittsburgh at night, though it could be any city. The climax occurs out of town, in a rock quarry, interesting because it necessitated two snipers and left Reacher exposed. Also, gravel pits seem like good places for murders.

Commentary (0/2)

In Jack Reacher, a dubious corporation fronting a criminal organization roams the country murdering people to take over their construction companies and profit from urban redevelopment. Classic move. I think that’s how Genghis Khan got his start.

I wanted to find a message in this movie, and I couldn’t. The closest it comes occurs in Helen’s office, when Reacher observes the desk jockeys killing time until they punch out and go home. Reacher says that he can’t live like that, and he understands why soldiers fighting for freedom overseas, would scoff at our alleged freedoms.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Jack Reacher plays it straight.


  • Is it possible to bite through bone?
  • (1) McQuarrie told this story well: as a movie. No dialogue is spoken from the opening seconds until after Barr is arrested. The sniper drives through Pittsburgh, parks in the deck, cocks his rifle, scopes out victims, shoots them, drives away, is investigated by Emerson, who gathers evidence and arrest Barr before anyone speaks. The same thing happens in the car chase: no dialogue. This technique increases the tension. I was waiting for someone to speak. Barr doesn’t speak until after he’s exonerated.

Summary (42/68): 62%

Jack Reacher surprised me with its tense action and tenser lead character. That’s Cruise for you. The surprise casting of Herzog, with his scary clouded eye and scarier voice, added to the film but was hurt by not using him enough.

The gritty, realistic action scenes were welcome in a decade stacked with flying heroes shooting mind lasers at alien demons. Reacher is a real dude fighting other real dudes who possess great skills, but skills they developed through practice, not birth or coming here from another planet.