Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jack Reacher (2012) – Review

Review: Jack Reacher is an entertaining action mystery, hitting all of the genre conventions/clichés, but with style and fresh take on the classic action hero. The film is about a retired military investigator, Jack Reacher, who shows up in Pittsburg after a former army sniper shoots five random people. As he digs deeper into the case, he discovers that there is a conspiracy, putting his life in danger – but nothing he cannot handle.

Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie is firstly making a potentially franchise-birthing action film, which also plays as a decent mystery/detective film. Thus, there are certain genre cues that his narrative must touch on – car chases, a gunfight standoff in the third act, a menacing villain in the shadows, character twists, damsels in distress, our hero showing off his talent for violence and ego so that the audience finds him believable. All this happens in Jack Reacher, which seemingly would relegate it to being just another fun, sure, but ultimately forgettable throwaway action film (the overabundance of these such films is what made 2011’s Drive such a revelation). However, McQuarrie is able to infuse the film with enough style and fresh energy that it plays above the genre conventions and expectations it prescribes to and is un-bashfully rife with.

The character of Reacher is almost laughable cliché on the surface – he is a former expert military investigator, who also happens to be a war hero, crack shot, an adeptly proficient fighter, and all-around badass who knows he is the best and has only complete confidence in himself. He also seems to speak only in quips. Plus, anytime a woman sees him, they seem to find him attractive (as McQuarrie constantly has women wrenching their necks to get a look at him). Yet, given all this bravado, he is completely honor bound and driven. Essentially, Reacher is the perfect man – or at least the perfect action hero, which should make him utterly uninteresting.

McQuarrie makes Reacher a good character (drawing from Lee Child’s novels, from which the character is based) however by digging deeper into him and making him somewhat flawed and even kind of sad. McQuarrie presents Reacher as a man who is completely disillusioned coming back from war to an ideal that never existed. He has no place in this world, so he moves around off the grid because he does not want to be a part of it. While there is sexual tension and attraction between Reacher and Helen (the female lead, a lawyer who is defending the sniper when no one else would volunteer to), McQuarrie does not let Reacher have a ‘happy ending’ as he does not get the girl nor does he even try, he simply just moves on. He has no interest in rejoining society, as he is maybe forever lost – only getting involved in this case because of his underlying sense of justice and honor. Superficially Reacher is the perfect action hero, but the audience does not want to be him (at least they should not if they let themselves look deeper and are not just there for the car chases, brawls and gunfights). He is broken, which makes him interesting and allows the audience to maybe even invest in him as a character – though, the mystery aspect of the film really drives the plot much more than the characters. Reacher as a character is probably worthy of another couple films to be fleshed out more.

McQuarrie also does not shy away from explicitly showcasing the sheer brutality of violence (I am actually surprised the film is only rated PG-13). This film does not glorify violence at all (which is strange for an ‘action film’), yet as a genre film it still needs to have compelling and entertaining action scenes. It does, but McQuarrie specifically lays out the toll the action takes on the film’s characters. It is presented in a very frank, almost unnerving fashion (unlike an action film like The Expendables 2 in which the character reveal and enjoy the human carnage they inflict). Reacher and McQuarrie fully engage in violence and killing, but the tone is different and there is a feeling that it all means something and that there is a cost for the characters, seemingly further detaching them from humanity. Reacher knows what needs to be done and does it, but there is also regret in his eyes.

The villains in the film are mostly typical genre hooligans, henchman and big bads. They might as well be nameless and faceless, as all the audience needs to know is that they are bad men and Reacher will try to stop them. The main villain, The Zec, is interesting however (and I am probably looking too much into this) as he is both the typical ‘Bond-villain’, an exaggerated bad man who is almost cartoony in his persona, and also a comment on the perception of evil in the world. The Zec is a European (of course) former Siberian prisoner who bit off his own fingers to survive and seems to just be completely evil with total disregard for humanity. However, he never plays up his motivations or tries to be charismatic or outlandish. He is merely just an evil man who does bad things because that is all he knows, a product of a hard world who knows only violence. The Zec derives no meaning from life and thus does not care about it. Power has consumed him in the vacuum of all other human pursuits (like love) being void. This character seems to speak to how we often perceive people who do evil in the world – we only see the evil and only think about the evil. They are just evil. And, the Zec is an old warped amalgamation of our feelings towards those that do evil.

Despite being a typical yet fresh take on the action genre, the film has a few issues that hold it back as well. Chiefly, the film lacks true suspense. Reacher is so confident and McQuarrie treats the audience to multiple examples of his unwavering talent that the audience never doubts his ability and never questions whether or not he will be able to save the day. As an action genre film, the audience implicitly knows that he will save the day, as that is just how this genre’s narrative structure works, and that he will most likely come through somewhat unscathed. The audience expects this. However, there needs to also be some doubt that lingers in their minds. That way, the finale will actually be organically suspenseful and meaningful for the audience. Here, that does not happen. There is never even an inkling of doubt that Reacher will be the hero and defeat the villain. Sure, the finale is still entertaining, but it lacks the emotional investment from the viewer to make it great.

Another issue with the film is that its supporting characters are essentially all throwaways (though, some still work due to strong performances). Helen has a few character moments, but is ultimately just used as a damsel in distress to raise the stakes for Reacher – but because the audience knows with certainty that he will save her, there are never really any stakes. Plus, the villains essentially tell the audience that they are not going to kill her thus further diminishing any actual suspense that remained.

Jack Reacher probably should have been just another ‘action film’ to be enjoyed and forgotten, but the strong lead character and McQuarrie’s direction and writing elevate it to something somewhat more substantial in the genre (of the action films I have seen this year, it is among my favorites, trailing only Skyfall and Chronicle).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Christopher McQuarrie is probably best known for his writing (having won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects). However, his direction on this film is one of its strongest aspects. His blunt treatment of the action is refreshing and grounded the film in reality, making things almost emotionally disarming (especially the opening sequence in light of recent events). He is rumored to be taking on Mission: Impossible 5 next, and I am looking forward to see what he does with that franchise following up the last two in the series (which were both good).

Joe Kraemer’s score is unremarkable, as the absence of music in many parts of the film has more of an impact than when the score is used. However, it still tonally fit the film when used. Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography is very good, but straightforward. The film looks great, but McQuarrie does not try to use the lighting to give it more of an atmospheric feel or look (like say Roger Deakin’s work in Skyfall). The same can be said for Jim Bissell’s production design, which is firmly rooted in reality (mostly taking advantage of locations in and around Pittsburg).

The cast for the most part did not really have hearty roles to play with, as most of the characters worked as genre mainstays. That said, Robert Duvall is good playing his typical squirrely old man who is someone you would want in a fix. Werner Herzog (who still surprises me is in this film) is fantastic as the Zec. His line delivery is brilliant – devilishly evil without any sense of remorse, while also seemingly playing a bit of surprise that humans are not purely base animals like he is. It is a great and fun performance. Rosamund Pike has the thankless role as Helen, being both the damsel in distress and allowing the audience to get all the exposition and backstory by asking questions. And yet, she brings vitality to the role that elevates it. She has determination and strength; Helen is just in over her head. Tom Cruise plays Tom Cruise, and fans of his will enjoy his work. Plus, he does a good job conveying the sadness of Reacher that sits hidden behind his machismo.

Summary & score: Jack Reacher is a good, not great action film that genre fans and Tom Cruise fans will enjoy. 7/10

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