2012’s Jack Reacher was one of that year’s stronger, stranger action films: adapted from a series of airport potboilers by Lee Child, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie chose to cast 5’7” firecracker Tom Cruise in the role of 6’4” ex-military ass-kicker Jack Reacher (already, well, a reach), turned up the weirdness by casting Werner Herzog as the villain and transforming Reacher into a veritable trickster god who appears at the very mention of his name. Unfortunately, the sequel, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, earns its moniker. Maybe it was best to leave Jack Reacher alone.
With the reins handed over to Edward Zwick (who directed Cruise in The Last Samurai), Never Go Back sees “ex-Major” Reacher hitchhiking his way to Washington, D.C. to hook up with long-distance love interest Maj. Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), only to find that she’s been falsely arrested for espionage. Reacher decides to bust her out and solve the mystery, yadda yadda yadda, the details aren’t entirely important. All you need to know is that Tom Cruise gets to run around cracking wise and busting heads, which is admittedly still a joy to watch, even though none of the setpieces come close to any of the bone-cracking chases and dustups we saw in the previous film.
One of the biggest shakeups in Never Go Back is that Cruise has a sidekick this time in Smulders’ Major Turner. It’s clear that Smulders relishes the opportunity to put all that Marvel action-movie training to good use for once, and she does her best to stand up to Reacher’s lone-wolf chauvinism as much as the script will let her. She even gets a few interesting digs at the double standards applied to women in the military, but those bits ultimately go nowhere. Turner just acts as a second fiddle to Reacher at all turns, even in what is meant to be her character’s redemptive moment. It seems the film can’t decide whether to give Reacher an ass-kicking equal or a slightly more useful love interest.
(Read: Tom Cruise’s Top 10 Performances)
Never Go Back feels like a late entry in the Reacher series, as if we’ve skipped four or five movies to get to this point. For instance, Reacher gets a subplot about a young girl (Danika Yarosh, plucky and insufferable in equal measures) who may or may not be his daughter, who must then go on the run with Reacher and Turner when her life is endangered as well. Suddenly, the wise-cracking loner Reacher finds himself at the center of a surrogate family of similarly resourceful badasses, and he struggles to find his role within it. Taking Reacher out of his lone wolf wheelhouse would be an interesting risk for a series losing its steam, but is instead a weird leap to take for the second-ever film, and it doesn’t quite work.
The problem is, unlike recent action throwbacks like John Wick and the first Jack Reacher, Never Go Back is content to stay firmly in its own lane and not get weird with it. The plot pales in comparison to the mystery-sniper case from the first Reacher: how many times has ‘greedy military contractor stealing guns/drugs from the Middle East’ been a plot point in this kind of film? We were also spoiled with Herzog’s mercurial weirdness as the baddie of the first Jack Reacher, as he’s replaced here with a series of beefy, trenchcoat-wearing henchmen. Seriously, Robert Knepper (who plays the ultimate mastermind) might say five lines at most in his Foghorn Leghorn accent before the film is over.
Despite the promise of its predecessor, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back can’t quite muster up the kind of enthusiasm it needs to sell a patently ridiculous character like Reacher. Sure, there are brief moments of delightful camp, as when Reacher and Smulders must dodge gunfire in a parking lot while trying to find out which black sedan they’ve stolen the keys for, or when Reacher promises to break the limbs of an opponent in a certain order, and then does exactly that. But outside of those moments, it’s two solid hours of disposable, forgettable action-thriller filmmaking with a competent Cruise performance in the middle. If you ask me, they should have just leaned into the joke and called it Jack Reacher: Round 2.