There aren’t any action stars quite like Tom Cruise, but there are many other action flicks like Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. As indistinguishable from the crowd as any random pair in a collection of gray socks, this sequel walks the walk and talks the talk of so many sloppy shoot-em-ups before it. I can only balk the balk. Familiarity isn’t always a burden, but it certainly is in this case. You’d be hard pressed to find enough shrugs of indifference in the world to do this thing justice.
The second screen story of the titular ex-Major-turned-wanderer teams Reacher with suddenly detained Army Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who has been accused of espionage as an attempt to cover up some shady dealings by military personnel in Afghanistan. Why? Who cares, really.
This whole plot feels like it was recycled from already recycled parts. There’s little mystery, since we know Turner is innocent from the start and most of the military-connected villains are revealed early. The bad guys’ reasons for the cover-up are bland and seem to matter little in the grand scheme of, well, anything.
Despite the lameness on display, there’s potential here to examine the military from a human perspective, question what makes someone choose a military position as their career and observe the tragic specifics of psychological scars gained from combat tours. These thoughts certainly appear to be on the minds of screenwriters Richard Wenk, Marshall Herskovitz, and Edward Zwick and possibly were better fleshed out in Lee Childs’ novel they’re adapting, but any aim for actual insight is snuffed out by a ridiculous paternity subplot involving Reacher and feisty teen Samantha (Danika Yarosh).
The reveal of whether Cruise’s loner hero is really a dad or not is dragged out for the entirety of the movie and should have absolutely no one on the edge of their seat. There’s next to nothing that can be gained by either option, since Reacher is never such a selfish jerk that seeing him tolerate a teen girl in his presence can be mistaken for some engaging advancement in character development.
Still, the mystery drags on and on and on and merely adds gooey sentimentality to the already gummed-up proceedings. Most problematically, it distracts from the military storyline, which is the movie’s only opportunity to be remotely interesting. With a nondescript contract killer on Reacher’s heels and the added challenge of keeping Samantha safe, even though she’s obligated by the dopey script to disobey orders and make bad decisions, the movie has too many pieces to juggle and not enough brain cells to make the juggling look like anything but an overwhelming chore.
With the script such a bust, the movie needs Cruise to keep the audience awake, but Zwick, who also directs, doesn’t make it easy on him. Zwick once had a trademark style and scope back in the 80s and 90s when he was making big tales of wartime experiences with lavish period recreations and large doses of Hollywood embellishment. Now he's more of a genre drifter, the old Zwick still visible, but the charm now gone. He’s become a hack-for-hire and his staging and execution of the action sequences here are total rubbish.
A foot chase through the bustling streets of New Orleans during a Mardi Gras parade is a spatially disoriented mess that generates no suspense or thrills and a showdown on some rooftops plays like a parody of the most asinine action flick finish imaginable. Complete with bad slow-mo, a cheesy callback to an earlier bit of foreshadowing in the movie, and some embarrassing oversight by the villain, the sequence is completely interchangeable with a whole host of bland, generic action sequences from the past couple decades.
More than anything, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is a throwback to the 90s, when shootouts at shipping ports weren’t a done-to-death concept on the cheap and saddling the hero with some know-nothing sidekick was considered fun and instead of bombastic CGI set pieces, we had less bombastic stunt work. Of course, Zwick’s movie isn’t reminiscent of any good 90s action movies, of which there are tons, but rather all the crap even action buffs have mostly forgotten.
Being the most 90s-ish movie ever made outside of the 90s doesn’t have to be bad distinction and a stunt-filled movie about well-trained soldiers battling it out could be a welcome respite from the constant onslaught of digitally enhanced superheroes, but this movie isn’t going to be a wanted respite from anything other than, perhaps, general awakeness. It’s just too dull at every turn and too much a waste of the military service theme.
The Jack Reacher series is certainly free to be nothing more than escapist fluff, but it’s better to offer an experience that one would actually want to escape to. The workmanlike simplicity and generic familiarity of Zwick’s direction are not enticing enough to warrant the trip. Fittingly, the sequel’s title sneakily says it all: Never Go Back (to this franchise). Sage advice for the audience and for Cruise. The 90s were good to the one-and-only star, but it’s painfully clear that it’s time to move on.