If “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” were set in the real world, it would have lasted all of about five minutes.
The film opens with a bunch of Oklahoma hillbillies lying bruised and bloody in the red dirt parking lot of a late night diner.
Inside, the likely perpetrator sits alone at the counter.
Now, anyone paying attention to the news these days could rightfully note that on rare but notable occasions, people have been gunned down by police in this country for much less serious offenses.
But this is the world of Jack Reacher, where a man resembling Tom Cruise can walk away from that scene mostly unscathed. And he can continue to wander across America with nothing more than some cash and an old military ID, busting up the occasional treacherous plot infiltrating the highest levels of the federal government.
But a lack of realism in an action movie is acceptable. After all, we like our John McClanes with a little “Yippee-Ki-Yay!”
Predictability, however, is a bad thing.
This is the second movie based on Lee Child’s insanely popular and highly readable Reacher novels. The first, simply titled “Jack Reacher,” was a serviceable action procedural that deserved better than its $80 million U.S. box office.
But it opened in December 2012, just seven days after Adam Lanza killed 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. In the face of that deadly assault, American moviegoers stayed away from the cineplex, seemingly experiencing one of those rare moments of national conscience where they realized most violent action thrillers often are simply two-hour commercials for weapons manufacturers.
But after “Jack Reacher” hit $200 million in overseas box office, a sequel was greenlit, and here we are.
In “Never Go Back,” Reacher is on his way to Virginia to meet Maj. Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders of “How I Met Your Mother”), who now commands his old military police unit. But by the time Reacher thumbs his way from the Midwest (Hello, Independence, Mo.!), Turner has been arrested for espionage. Soon after, of course, Reacher also becomes a suspect.
Though Cruise is too old (54), short (5-foot-7) and small (150 pounds) to match the Reacher of the novels (late 30s-early 40s, 6-foot-5, 250), the actor oozes the character’s grungy brutality. And he knows when to shut up, matching the delightful “Reacher said nothing” moments of the novels.
But “Never Go Back” lacks intricacy. The mysteries of Turner’s arrest and the is-she-or-isn’t-she subplot involving a teen who might be Reacher’s daughter are telegraphed well in advance.
And while Smulders’ Turner can go toe-to-toe with Reacher, we feel sorry for her as she struggles to make sense of events audiences figured out about an hour before.
The film isn’t without the occasional surprise. Cruise knocks a guy out by punching his fist through a car window (but that might not be much of an astonishment if you’ve seen the trailer).
And there’s some snappy dialogue. When the bad guy asks over the phone if he hears fear in Reacher’s voice, Reacher replies through gritted teeth, “I’m going to break your arms. I’m going to break your legs. I’m going to break your neck. What you hear is excitement.”
The Jack Reacher novels are eminently entertaining. If literary snobbery has kept you from picking one up, stop it already. The books’ joyous mayhem transcends guilty pleasure.
“Never Go Back” could have been the next chapter in a film franchise featuring a new kind of hero for the 21st century: a gritty, no-nonsense knight errant who transforms all of our unfocused American anger into righteous vengeance on the unseen hands pressing down on the middle class.
Instead, when it comes to originality “Reacher” truly says nothing.
‘Jack Reacher: Never Go Back’
Rated PG-13. Time: 1:58.