Thursday, January 03, 2013

Reached by Jack Reacher!

You know what? I'm kind of embarrassed to admit it, but having been somewhat un-blown-away by the excess spectacle of The Hobbit, the message-muddling of The Life of Pi, and the too-smug, too-clever, too-hollow Django Unchained, I find myself in an unexpected place, with a would-be blockbuster that I might be expected not to like, but did, all the way through, with very few reservations.

That being Jack Reacher.

Understand: I'm no fan of Tom Cruise; I've found him off-putting since 1985's Legend, well before it was popular to mock him. While occasionally, when cast appropriately and kept in check, he's done some decent work - Rain Man, Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, even the first Mission Impossible - his public persona, his advocacy of Scientology, and his occasional appearance in imbecilic, self-serving vanity projects like Mission Impossible II make him very hard to take, and his too-perfect face and too-white smile are unappealing in much the same way as a giant set of silicone boobs: they're fake-looking to the extent of insulting the intelligence. Maybe it's just resentment that makes me feel this way, but I imagine someone fairly tortured and confused behind that smile, someone who has spent so much time preparing a face to meet the faces he meets that the soul behind it absolutely MUST be a rather malformed thing. I really don't think I'm alone here, either; surely one of the reasons people liked him so much in Tropic Thunder is that he had the courage not to be in the slightest bit handsome in that film. It seems, in fact, that almost every role he gets positive attention for does something to subvert or sabotage his looks, or otherwise undermine his perfection; the days of celebrating Tom Cruise's beauty appear to be over.

When I heard Cruise was the driving force behind the adaptation of Lee Child's novel One Shot, I winced. That a too-handsome-for-his-own-good, rather famously short guy would presume to take on the role of a man described in book after book as 6' 5", 250 pounds, and unkempt, battle-scarred and unattractive, suggested that the ensuing film would bend Child's lean, mean storytelling into another excuse for idiotic stuntwork and celebrations of Cruise's falser-than-false smile and irritatingly perfect physique. Even before seeing the film, my girlfriend and I were making less-than-reverent "Jack the Reacher" comments - I won't mention who was reaching for what at such moments - and giggling. If it hadn't been for Werner Herzog's acting role, as the film's villain, I might well have avoided it altogether; it was mostly the prospect of Cruise and Herzog occupying the same cinematic space - as sure a harbinger of the apocalypse as one could hope for - that got me into the theatre, and even then I expected to emerge less than impressed.
Colour me incorrect. It's a very well-made film, very much in keeping with the flavour and spirit of the Reacher novels. The director, Christopher McQuarrie - who also made the very interesting The Way of the Gun - constructs Jack Reacher as a chilly, functional, stripped-down thriller, which is exactly, one would imagine, what Lee Child would have wanted, since these are also very good descriptions of his prose (shameless male 'hero fantasy' stuff, without much literary merit, unless your idea of great writing is Richard Stark; I should know, because I've read all the ones to appear in paperback and have the new one, A Wanted Man, on my bed, waiting me to finish this piece of writing).

And Cruise is, in fact, perfectly suited for the character - a through-and-through hero figure, a sort of American ronin who is almost never wrong, almost never vulnerable, almost never required to doubt himself. This does not result in one of those exceptional, challenging performances mentioned above, and the alteration in Reacher's physical appearance does have its effects on the story - one scene where Cruise appears shirtless ends up in the land of come-celebrate-my-physique, and a scene where Reacher is forced into fighting five guys at once would perhaps have been more believable - but less exciting - had Reacher been the giant creature of the novels. All the same, I have to grant - Cruise is very good in this. He gives a smart, tense, believable performance, which I think admirers of the books will find themselves rather surprised to find themselves accepting. He's pretty damn good as Jack Reacher, actually.

Perhaps even weirder than all that, however, is that Werner Herzog is actually really, really good in the film. I've seen him in a few acting roles now - Incident at Loch Ness, Julien Donkey Boy - but none particularly impressed me with his ability to inhabit a fictional character; indeed, in the Loch Ness movie, he was simply parodying himself, and even then, somewhat awkwardly. He's great here, though - he outshines Robert Duvall, who also has a small role, and exudes a very believable aura of menace. There's even an echo of one of his own movies, Cerro Torre/ Scream of Stone, where Brad Dourif plays a mountain climber who has lost all the fingers on one hand; Herzog plays a former gulag prisoner who chewed off the fingers of one hand to avoid frostbite. It would be very, very strange to see Werner Herzog become a regular in Hollywood movies, but after this film... I think I'd welcome it, just as I'd welcome a second Reacher adaptation by this team.

Anyhow, go figure. If I had to see any of the winter's big movies a second time, I think it'd be Jack Reacher.  That really, really wasn't something I expected to say...

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