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Is Tom Cruise big enough to carry ‘Jack Reacher’?

The opening minutes of the action-thriller “Jack Reacher” unfold with a display of gun violence that will be strikingly familiar to anyone who has been horrified by headline news in recent weeks. A sniper is shown assembling his long-range assault rifle. He then leans over a balustrade and goes about systematically assassinating innocent victims, seemingly at random, as they walk along a Pittsburgh riverfront.

Tom Cruise breaks type to portray the movie’s eponymous lead, a surly butt-kicker out to investigate the shooting rampage. Question is, just days after the tragically real school shooting in Newtown, Conn., are moviegoers primed to pay to see more innocent people massacred on-screen?

The predicament represents a moment of truth for Cruise. With Paramount Pictures set to release “Reacher” on Friday, the man who not long ago was the world’s most bankable movie star is now Hollywood’s holiday underdog. Prerelease surveys suggest “Reacher” will open to about $15 million, an unimpressive start for a picture that cost $60 million to make.

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If word of mouth from early attendees is good, however, “Jack Reacher,” like many pictures that open just before Christmas, could enjoy a big box office run over the holidays. But there is a lot to overcome.

Not only must Cruise ask audiences to set aside his tabloid persona as a participant in the most high-profile celebrity divorce of recent years, the eternally boyish 5-foot-7 star must sell fans of British author Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” series on his portrayal of a 6-foot-5 blond-haired ex-soldier who weighs more than 220 pounds.

Prerelease buzz on social media has been so negative that in October research firm Fizziology reported it was the worst it had ever seen surrounding a particular actor in an upcoming picture.

“Jack Reacher is a sledge hammer, Tom Cruise is [an] underwear dancing sissy,” posted a commenter identifying himself as Little Jonny on the website of the British film magazine Empire.

Addressing those concerns and refocusing attention on the movie is perhaps Cruise’s most important task as he arrives in the U.S. this week to do publicity for the film after attending premieres for it overseas. The movie’s premiere in Pittsburgh was delayed from Saturday to Wednesday after last week’s elementary school massacre in Connecticut. And a celebrity-packed special screening of the film at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center on Monday that Cruise was scheduled to attend was postponed.

Cruise’s star has already been tarnished at the box office this year with the surprise failure of the musical “Rock of Ages.” He helped revive the “Mission: Impossible” franchise last December but fizzled in 2010’s action-comedy “Knight and Day.”

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And then there’s the film’s competition at the multiplex. On Christmas, “Reacher” will have to face-off against Quentin Tarantino’s slave revenge epic “Django Unchained” and the adaptation of Broadway musical “Les Misérables,” two of 2012’s most highly anticipated films.

Last week, “Reacher” producer Don Granger admitted some apprehension but pointed out that the gritty potboiler could serve as counterprogramming to awards-bait movies.

“Of course it keeps you up at night, those movies have tremendous presold awareness,” he said. “But once Paramount saw our movie, they felt we could be the good-time PG-13 action thriller for the holiday season.”

There’s also reason to believe “Jack Reacher” could succeed overseas. With the knowledge that “Knight & Day” and “Mission” each grossed more than three times as much internationally as domestically, Paramount has had Cruise expend most of his promotional energy for “Reacher” in Asia and Europe.

“The U.S. market today is much less star-driven, but the international marketplace still is,” said Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore. “Our expectation that it will do more outside of the U.S. is a big reason to put Tom Cruise in a movie like this.”

A big gap

Cruise has owned the rights since 2005 to adapt “One Shot” — the ninth book in British author Lee Child’s bestselling Jack Reacher series — but the filmmakers insist Cruise’s casting was not Hollywood’s version of Dick Cheney picking himself to be George W. Bush’s presidential running mate after he ran the then-candidate’s search committee.

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In fact, the star was initially uncertain about claiming the part for himself due to the large gap between Reacher and Cruise’s personas. Child describes Reacher as “built like the side of a house ... his hands, giant battered mitts that bunched into fists the size of footballs.”

Nonetheless, the actor’s Paramount-based Cruise/Wagner Productions got the ball rolling on the production, attempting to enlist the actor’s frequent screenwriting collaborator Christopher McQuarrie in 2010. The Oscar-winner (for “The Usual Suspects”) wrote and produced Cruise’s 2008 Nazi assassination thriller “Valkyrie” and co-wrote “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.”

But McQuarrie had reservations about adapting Child’s book for the screen. Before he took the job, he insisted upon being installed on the Reacher project as director in addition to writing its script — despite boasting only a single directing credit, the 2000 box-office disappointment “The Way of the Gun.”

“I was very very skeptical that it was ever going to happen,” McQuarrie admitted by phone from London days before the movie’s premiere. “I didn’t assume where I was in my career that Tom was going to be in a movie with me directing. You throw out any three names he’s worked with and put my name on the list, which one of these things is not like the other?”

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But as the old saying goes, movies get made because someone forgets to say no. Cruise surprised McQuarrie with his blessing and after meeting with Paramount’s production president, Marc Evans, so did the studio. Once McQuarrie delivered a solid shooting script, only two critically unresolved matters stood between the movie getting the green light: Who would play Jack Reacher and how much would it cost?

Process of elimination

Realizing Hollywood is basically bereft of blond-haired, blue-eyed, 6-foot-5 actors who carry enough star power to “open” a movie, McQuarrie and Granger decided to table the question of Reacher’s height. Then they created a graph of the industry’s leading men, grading them on the character’s other core attributes: charm, eloquence, physicality and gravitas.

Gradually the field shrank until only one name remained: Cruise.

Once McQuarrie and Granger convinced their producer he was the right star after all, Cruise refused to sign on unless he landed Lee Child’s blessing. Granger and McQuarrie met the author for dinner anticipating a lengthy discussion to explain their rationale for casting the “Top Gun” lead. “We wanted to walk him through it,” McQuarrie recalled, “but he said, ‘Look guys, it’s Tom Cruise. Why wouldn’t I want the biggest star in the world to play my character?’”

Even with “Reacher’s” bankability in question, Cruise, the filmmakers and the studio hope to create a second franchise for the “Mission: Impossible” star, who owns the rights to all 17 of Child’s Jack Reacher books.

“Supply is ready,” McQuarrie said. “We are just waiting on demand.”

chris.lee@latimes.com

ben.fritz@latimes.com

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