By Preston Wilder
Tom Cruise is a complicated man, blessed with a complicated screen presence that’s kept him at the top for 30 years but also tends to spill over – as it does for Mel Gibson – into his personal life. Film acting is truthful that way; actors’ inner demons feed their onscreen energy, even when the audience isn’t sure exactly why it’s so interesting. Cruise’s demons aren’t as well-publicised as Gibson’s – all we really have is some evidence of erratic behaviour, plus Scientology – but we know they exist, and he knows we know. At one point in Never Go Back he turns his laser-focused energy on Sam (Danika Yarosh), the 15-year-old girl who may be his daughter, warning her to never, ever do whatever it was she just did; he’s so angry, a muscle in his jaw starts twitching. “You’re very intense,” notes Sam, unruffled. “You know that?”
Cruise is more than just intense; he’s by all accounts a perfectionist, making him a Messianic figure in the world of action movies. He’s not a natural action hero, and his macho act isn’t as convivial as Jason Statham’s (he looks like he’d be a bad loser) – but we know by now that a Tom Cruise film will be smart and professional, its expensive action anchored by a well-worked script rather than coasting on outrageous stunts and Vin Diesel saying “family”. That’s especially true of the Mission: Impossible franchise, less so the Jack Reacher franchise which wasn’t even a franchise, just an overlong B-movie that came out in 2012 and didn’t even do very well, by Tom Cruise standards. Reacher was perhaps the only blot on Cruise’s action-hero copybook – which may be why he’s decided to try again, producing and starring in a sequel that may be superfluous but actually works better than the lumpy original.
The basic problem remains, viz. that Cruise is miscast as Reacher. He’s a great Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible, a high-tech hero with a head for gadgets – but ex-soldier Jack is a bruiser and a badass, the kind who talks with his fists, and that’s never been the Tom Cruise way. The sequel tries to mitigate that, focusing on our hero’s smarts whenever possible; accused of murder, his first reaction is to talk jurisdiction, trying to get off on a technicality. (It doesn’t work, so he beats people up instead.) Above all, the film tries to soften Jack – and indeed Tom – by surrounding him with women, both teenage Sam and Cobie Smulders as Major Turner, the fellow fugitive (and love interest) who joins Reacher in uncovering dirty deeds involving a security contractor in Afghanistan.
Cruise used the same trick in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, and it works almost equally well here (though Smulders isn’t as magnificent as Rebecca Ferguson in that film). The daughter in this improvised family is also effective, the film pausing for an interlude at a posh girls’ school and an in-flight conversation between Sam and Turner – two scenes not involving Reacher which might’ve been thrown away in most action films but get surprising attention here. Jack learns to be a dad and also learns how to be in a relationship, making joint decisions and compromising where necessary. “You’re like something feral!” says Turner at one point – and that’s the general arc, wild beast Jack becoming more socialised, even if it means becoming less free.
Reacher is a free spirit as well as a brawler, something made clearer in the sequel; he stands against a world of tired civil servants and rows of identical black sedans in a parking lot. His opponent is cut from the same cloth, a killer who unfolds the usual ‘We are the same, you and I’ spiel – and of course that’s a cliché, but Never Go Back doesn’t mind clichés. The film, like its predecessor, is old-fashioned, even beyond the fact that Jack uses his fists instead of guns, rife with familiar details like the henchmen who work as a duo (one of them sporting a weird look, bleached-blond hair in this case) or the murder mystery at the heart of the conspiracy: “Whatever they found out [in Afghanistan] got them killed… But by who?”.
Some will find the whole thing tired and predictable, right down to the climax taking place in the middle of a street parade. Some will find it silly, and indeed it does get silly (can you really knock two people out in a plane without anyone noticing?). Those who hate Tom Cruise are unlikely to change their minds – yet he’s fast becoming something like a guarantee of quality, and besides he has that presence, that implacable, frenziedly charming, almost inhuman Tom Cruise presence. It’s still somehow thrilling to hear him tell a baddie that “Two things are going to happen in the next 90 seconds” (needless to say, they happen), or devote all his complicated Cruise-ness to a hard-boiled exchange like the following: “Who the hell are you?”; “The guy you didn’t count on”. It’s not quite “I want the truth” “You can’t handle the truth”, but it’s something.
JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK
DIRECTED BY Edward Zwick
STARRING Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Danika Yarosh
US 2016 118 mins