Film review: 'Jack Reacher' thriller is a bit of a reach

For fans of Lee Child's series of Jack Reacher thrillers, the decision to cast Tom Cruise as Reacher must seem like ... well ... a reach. Child's protagonist is light-haired, nearly 6 and a half feet tall, burly enough to be instantly intimidating, and laconic — the very antithesis of star Cruise's on-screen image. The character seems a far better fit for Arnold Schwarzenegger; it's hard not to speculate that Child came up with the character back in the '90s with the specific hope of creating a new franchise for the governor-to-be.

Whether or not Cruise can satisfy Child's fans, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie's new “Jack Reacher” should have no trouble with those who haven't read the books. (The film is adapted from “One Shot,” the ninth in the series.) We quickly get his back story: Reacher served in Iraq as a detective for the Army unit charged with investigating and prosecuting crimes among military personnel. After half a dozen years, he got frustrated with Army politics, left the service and completely dropped off the grid.

When a former Army sniper is arrested in Pittsburgh for shooting and killing five apparently random citizens at midday in a public place, the suspect — facing an open-and-shut case — will only say, “Get Jack Reacher.” Before the lead cop (David Oyelowo) and the D.A. (Richard Jenkins) can find Reacher (Cruise), he shows up on his own and becomes an investigator for the man's defense attorney, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), who — to make matters more complicated — is also the daughter of the D.A. (Richard Jenkins). Nah, I didn't buy it, either.

It goes without saying that the sniper is innocent, and in no time, the real bad guys target Reacher. What ensues is a string of mano-a-mano fights, car chases and gun battles, with an occasional break for Reacher to flirt and/or take his shirt off and make Helen — and presumably a nice percentage of the audience — swoon.

Cruise is generally convincing, though he can't completely turn off his talkativeness and his still boyish charm, neither of which are earmarks of Child's original character. The prose Reacher comes across as cold and inscrutable, more like Richard Stark's Parker, as embodied by Lee Marvin in the 1967 “Point Blank.”

As the chief villain, filmmaker Werner Herzog provides enough coldness and inscrutability for two movies. He is introduced off screen, but fans of his documentaries will recognize his distinctive delivery within two or three words.

“Jack Reacher” in not as much fun as other recent Cruise action movies like “Knight and Day” and “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.” But it's intelligently crafted and delivers the action.

Of course, where there is nonstop action, there is also likely to be near nonstop violence. McQuarrie and his action choreographers have staged most of it without much blood and guts. They make up for that with brutal movements and evocative sound effects. So adjust for your particular brand of squeamishness.

And now, for the elephant in the living room: You can't penalize films for events beyond their makers' control, but it would be a lot easier to celebrate “Jack Reacher” if the Newtown shootings weren't still fresh in our minds. It opens with the sniper sequence and ends with a big shootout involving rapid-fire exchanges between automatic (or semiautomatic) weapons.

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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