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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Serious Over-Reacher

Jack Reacher

Paramount, 2012

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

Screenplay by McQuarrie based on a novel by Lee Child

Starring Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Werner Herzog and Robert Duvall

If you put a welterweight into the ring with a light heavyweight, the chances are, he is going to get his ass kicked. Yet supersleuth Jack Reacher (as portrayed by all 5’ 7” and 147 pounds of actor Tom Cruise) beats down five goons outside a bar without breaking a sweat in the film Jack Reacher (based on the novel One Shot by Jim Grant, writing under the pen-name, Lee Child). 

A short time afterward, the unarmed Reacher takes out a pair of heavyweights equipped with a crow bar and an aluminum baseball bat while searching a run-down Pittsburgh house – even though the thugs get in the first lick, a shot to Reacher’s head with the bat that is solid enough to draw blood. He then disarms a third man who gets the drop on him with a semiautomatic pistol. 

Toward the end of the film, he takes on an entire construction crew packing fully automatic assault weapons with nothing more than a large rock.

You may be starting to see the main problem I had with the movie: the diminutive Cruise is simply not tall enough, heavy enough or muscular enough to do the kind of physical damage that Reacher does to the thugs in this film.

Aside from his stature, Cruise makes a pretty fair Reacher.  He doesn’t waste a lot of words, gets off some cracks that had me laughing out loud (probably to the annoyance of the handful of other viewers sitting in the nearly empty theater where I saw the movie) and is fairly convincing as a street-smart investigator who spots clues missed by the cops in an apparently open-and-shut mass murder case.

And the film is certifiably entertaining. It is fast-paced,  well photographed and edited, with sharp, classy intercutting – and none of the cheap shaky-cam effects that have become so popular in action movies. The plot is developed nicely and only a couple of the characters are superficial enough to be dismissed as stereotypical.

Here is the set-up: five people are killed in broad daylight by a sniper in Pittsburgh. A suspect is apprehended quickly after police turn up a sizeable body of evidence that points directly to his guilt.   

The suspect, James Barr (Joseph Sikora), a former U.S. Army sniper, is confronted by the lead homicide investigator (David Oyelowo) and the DA (the obiquitous Richard Jenkins) and offered a choice: life in prison or the death penalty.

Cryptically, Barr scribbles a note that says “Get Jack Reacher,” before he is attacked by other inmates and beaten comatose while being moved to detention before trial.

The authorities believe that Reacher is Barr’s friend; but it turns out he is actually the military police investigator who put together a similar spree murder case against Barr in Iraq that never came to trial because the victims were all covert U.S. agents engaged in wrongdoing themselves. Reacher makes it clear he considers Barr a psychotic killer and is convinced he committed the Pittsburgh shootings.

Despite this, Reacher is hired to make sure by Barr’s defense attorney, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), whose father conveniently happens to be the district attorney, setting up an intergenerational father/daughter conflict to sweeten the plot. As he looks into the case, he begins to notice that the evidence against Barr is not just good – it’s too damned good.

He begins to believe somebody else is really behind the mass shooting and becomes more convinced when he discovers he is being tailed and becomes embroiled in a series of confrontations that are clearly designed to take him off the case.

He figures out who the real killers are and the actual motive for the multiple shootings about ten minutes before the film’s end, clearing the path for a violent denouement in which the body count reaches James Bondian levels and he gets an opportunity to show off his unique approach toward meting out justice.

While Cruise as Reacher may be miscast from a physical standpoint, the Reacher character he portrays is scarcely more believable.

He has a photographic memory so sharp that he can recall every detail of all the evidence he has examined in a criminal case – including the serial number of the murder weapon – without taking or reviewing any notes.  He is a world-class target shooter who can put three shots inside a bullseye, one after another, with an unfamiliar rifle from 700 yards.  He appears to be an expert far beyond the black belt level in mixed martial arts.

So armed with this skill set, what does Reacher do for a living? Apparently, as hit man Jules Winnfield of Pulp Fiction would say, he is like Cain in the old Kung Fu TV series: “he walks the earth . . .  walking from place to place, meet[ing] people and get[ting] in adventures.”

As we learn in the movie, Reacher abruptly left the Army and has been living off the grid for a number of years without leaving any traces whatsoever, subsisting solely on his retirement, which is direct deposited into a bank and drawn on by means of electronic fund transfers. 

Nobody knows where he lives or how to get in touch with him. The reason for his isolated existence is never really made clear; instead it is shuffled away in this snatch of dialoq:

Look out the window.Tell me what you see. You see the same things that you see everyday. Well, imagine you've never seen it. Imagine you spent your whole life in other parts of the world, being told everyday that you're defending freedom. Then you finally decide you've had enough. Time to see what you've given up your whole life for, everything. Get some of that ‘freedom’ for yourself.”

An investigator who could do any of the Reacher does would have an exceptional advantage over the average cop or prosecutor, not to mention the run-of-the-mill crook. Reacher’s abilities put him on a fantasy plane with Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of Steig Larsson’s Millenium triology.
In fact, what I would like to see is the computer-hacking, kickboxing Salander face off with the bruising, eidetic Reacher in an epic detectathon, going after some truly worthy opponent – like, for example, Professor Moriarity or Hannibal Lechter. Or the people who stole everybody in the country’s retirement plans during the directives Ponzi scheme of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Instead, Reacher is up against Zek Chelovek (played by Werner Herzog), a Russian gangster of some sort who has engineered this entire scheme for what seem to me to be essentially pedestrian reasons. In other words, just another crook, albeit a particularly vicious one who is scarred as the result of extended internment in a particularly brutal Russian gulag.

What a dreadful waste.

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