Despite the misleading title, rest assured that Jack Reacher does indeed go back. And so does Tom Cruise, stepping once again into the shoes of author Lee Child's military vigilante for Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, and it's easy to see why he did. The first film hardly set the world on fire but it was a capable bruiser that allowed Cruise to be the silent badass, compared to the death-defying stuntman he plays in Mission: Impossible. 'Never Go Back' switches up the rules a little bit, but basically this is still just Cruise beating people up for two hours, which as it turns out isn't such a bad thing.
Based on the 18th book in Child's popular series, 'Never Go Back' is riddled with action movie cliches from top to bottom, but that's also part of its charm. Even the opening sequence, which finds Reacher having beaten up a bunch of local yokels who were running a kidnapping ring, features the kind of sleazy Sheriff character you've seen a million times before. There are others that fit the archetypal model; from the maniacal assassin (Patrick Heusinger) decked out in a black leather trench coat, to the shady corporate fat cat sitting in his office masterminding a grand scheme. If you've come looking for original ideas then this isn't the movie to see.
This time around Reacher finds himself in the middle of a rote conspiracy plot involving a military contractor's selling of U.S. weapons to local warlords. When a couple of Army soldiers investigating the crime turn up dead, the woman who sent them, Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), is framed on an espionage charge. Good thing she's friends with Reacher, who she has been tracking and flirting with over the phone as he wanders America "in search of trouble" as she puts it. He busts her out of military prison so easy it might as well have been guarded by Beetle Bailey, and they go on the hunt for evidence to clear her name.
There's friction and sexual tension between Reacher and Turner; both loners used to doing things their own way. But it's also refreshing to have Smulders' character not just be along for the ride. She's as tough as Reacher on every level and more motivated to get the bad guys than he is, although that's as far as it goes. Another nice addition is Danika Yarosh as Samantha Dayton, a teenager who may or may not be Reacher's previously-unknown daughter. The paternity mystery is a little bit silly, but it offers up some of the film's few light moments as Reacher struggles with just potential fatherhood. He hasn't even gotten the gig full-time yet and he can barely cut it.
Cruise turned to his The Last Samurai director Ed Zwick for this one and it's virtually indistinguishable from what Christopher McQuarrie did before. He's read the notes saying to always shoot Cruise from the ground up so he doesn't look like a munchkin, and the sound editing gives each punch a sickening, bonecrunching "crack". In IMAX every impact rattles you, like it was you on the receiving end of Reacher's fists. The violence is actually more brutal this time, so how the heck were both movies rated PG-13? That's the kind of power Cruise commands, folks.
Missing is the offbeat tone provided by Werner Herzog's utterly unfathomable villain in the first movie, replaced by one who is more of a physical match for Cruise. Not that we ever think for a second that Reacher is in any danger. The guy is practically inhuman for all the punishment he manages to walk away from. Are we sure he's not Wolverine underneath that smallish leather jacket and white tee? But Jack Reacher: Never Go Back isn't about the threat he faces; it's about the protection of those he cares about. One of the appealing things about Reacher is that he isn't a detective. He's not solving any mysteries or putting together clues. His solution to any problem is to punch it until it stays down for good. I think it's that simplicity Cruise enjoys most, and as long as he wants to escape into the world of Jack Reacher this franchise will stick around.
Rating: 3 out of 5