December 26, 2012

Cruise-in' for a Bruisin'

by Steve Dollar

Jack Reacher

When Tom Cruise wants to make things interesting for himself, he usually goes in for disfigurement. The cocksure top gun he embodied as a younger man often has yielded to an ugly underbelly in the latter half of his career. I don't mean only his movie-stealing cameo as the corpulent, hip-hopping Hollywood suit Lev Grossman in Tropic Thunder. Some of his more diverting (or, at times, grandiose) turns of the last decade-plus have seen that pretty face go straight to hell: mutilated behind a mask in Vanilla Sky; eyeballs yanked out (briefly) in Minority Report; garnished with an eye patch (and missing an arm), in the Nazi actioner Valkyrie. You can even count his role as rebounding '80s hair-farmer Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages, since his torso was covered in tattoos.

He's still recognizably Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher. Although creases of age have crept onto his face, they're still bolstered by his iconic all-American bone structure. His body doesn't betray a superfluous ounce of fat. Now 50, he's in flabbergastingly great shape. All the motorcycle jumping and 75th story window ledge-hanging he's handled for various MIssion Impossible installments have done him right. The movie marvels in that physique as if it were a mirror for Frank T.J. Mackey, the self-possessed chauvinist motivational speaker Cruise played in Magnolia, to gaze in admiringly and crow: "Respect the cock!" In Reacher, the actor is called upon to display his pecs and abs in the company of Helen Rodin (former Bond Girl Rosamund Pike), an attorney with the unwelcome task of defending an Iraqi war veteran charged with the murder of five innocent citizens in a psycho sniper tragedy. Though her name is Rodin, she's not much of a thinker. The character's main job is to go all goggle-eyed and gobsmacked at every little macho thing Reacher does. And seeing as Reacher is a self-styled man of mystery action detective with a heavy-duty military past and no data trail to stop him from kicking any ass he needs to, pretty much every damn thing he does is macho. Although the dialogue, penned by writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (Valkyrie) from the franchise best-seller One Shot by Lee Childs, aims to display him as funny as well as tough, like some cross between Don Rickles and a better-looking Snake Plissken.


"For God's sake, put on a shirt," Rodin demands, straining to avoid eye contact, as they confer in Reacher's motel room. "This is my shirt," the shirtless wonder responds, wringing dry the only one he seems to own after laundering it in the sink.

Ba-da-bing. Ba-da-boom.

That's the kind of movie this is. The groan-inducing banter, the blithering idiot characters, the dramatic twists sapped of all surprise as mapped by GPS, undermine an essentially decent forensics/conspiracy yarn, in which the man beyond-the-law takes on a shadowy outfit that has framed an innocent man (whom Reacher once declined to arrest for a similar shooting spree in Iraq, hence his return to the scene after the crime is publicized, intending to resolve unfinished business). Someone with Cruise's clout could get all kinds of movies made, so why is he starring in this downmarket junk? Perversely, that's the riddle that also makes Jack Reacher hugely enjoyable. It's strangely satisfying to watch Cruise manifest one of his trademark performances, with all the ego and self-satisfaction and smug one-line comebacks, at the service of such crummy, cornball writing. He got handed a lemon, but damned if he won't squeeze it for every drop.

You take in this spectacle in the manner of "It's either this or sitting through Les Miserables with the extended family at Christmas" kind of way. The movie had the extreme poor timing to open in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings, amid highly charged national agony over the issue of gun control. It includes scenes of a little girl viewed through a rifle sight and of pedestrians running in terror as others are gunned down, with news helicopters and vans of heavily armed police arriving almost instantly at the scene. Paramount delayed the release by a week, but probably should have waited longer: It pulled in less than half the box office of a movie no critics seem to like—The Hobbit—in its second week. (But still better than This is 40. Tom Cruise is kicking your ass, Apatow).

Jack Reacher

But I'm not going to blame the movie. I found its throwaway misogyny more offensive than its gun nut MacGuffin. If anything, Reacher is anti-ballistics, preferring to crush his enemies with his bare hands (or whatever tools happen to be within, uh, reach). Though he's still playing someone who is essentially superhuman, Cruise allows for some physical fallibility (getting his head cracked by a baseball bat) between heroic and impossible chase scenes. It could well be that his performance as a secretive guy no one trusts who is really only trying to do the right thing reflects how Cruise views himself after the dramatic getaway made by his ex-wife Katie Holmes and all the Scientology bean-spillage that followed. Or maybe it's just a movie, made because, hey, even Tyler Perry is playing bestseller detective-thriller heroes these days.

If nothing else, there's Werner Herzog. Speaking of disfigurement. He has a fraction of Cruise's screen time but will no doubt inspire a lot of drunken imitations at New Year's Eve parties, so irresistible is the act of mimicking that German mad-scientist accent, presented here at its most chilling. Reacher's shadowy arch-antagonist slides in just under the wire with the gnarliest bad guy spiel of the year, if only the second-best performance enhanced by a fake cataract. And hell no I'm not revealing it here. You'll have to sit through Jack Reacher yourself, like I did.

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Posted by ahillis at December 26, 2012 8:59 AM