Jack Reacher

Fri, Dec 28, 2012, 00:00

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Starring Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Werner Herzog, Richard Jenkins, Robert Duvall 12A cert, general release, 130 min

Werner Herzog is the only properly witty thing about this silly mystery, writes DONALD CLARKE

Not since the last avant garde experiment by that Ukrainian fellow has a film offered such a puzzling aspect to the wandering critic. Okay, that’s not quite true. The dilemma here is, at least, easily stated: how much of Jack Reacher is actually supposed to be funny?

At one end of the quandary, we have the scene in which Mr Reacher, a wandering hardnut played by Tom Cruise, finds himself squaring up to five Irish-Americans in a Pittsburgh bar. It is unquestionably very amusing that none of them thinks to remark how, well, lacking in hugeness their opponent seems. We can, however, safely assume that this is not intended as a joke.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the sequences in which Jack trades stock bruiser quips with various hoodlums who emerge from cupboards to trip over their own feet. These sequences are meant to be much funnier than they actually turn out.

Then, somewhere in the middle, there is the strange case of Werner Herzog. We have had to wait until the least week of December, but we finally have the most satisfyingly bizarre performance of 2012. The great director turns up as a sort of criminal mastermind with a history that defies any easy summary.

Huddled in a gloomy corner, his face a mass of creased existential despair, Mr Herzog begins: “I ssspent my first winter as a prisssoner in Sssiberia wearing a dead man’sss coat.” Later, when somebody threatens him with jail, he snorts: “American prisssson? A retirement home!”

Somebody should bottle Herzog’s performance, boil it down to its essence and smear it lightly across any film that pretends to be a comedy. It’s that funny. Then again, as has been the case with Werner for the past 50 years, we have no real idea if he means us to laugh. Remember Klaus Kinski flinging those poor monkeys about the place in Aguirre, the Wrath of God? It was either a riotous pantomime or a sombre comment on the wretchedness of everything.

All of which is very interesting, but can only delay us from talking about the film itself for so long. It should be surprising to note that – despite selling many millions of thrillers – Lee Child has had to wait until now to see one of his books made into a movie. It’s actually not so weird. No studio will spend much money on a mystery movie these days. Over the past few decades, all big-budget thrillers have become action movies.

Christopher McQuarrie, mindful of these facts, has made a most unusual beast of Child’s 2005 novel One Shot. That book followed a hugely tall, impressively wide, scarily intelligent tramp as he pondered his way to the solution of an apparently random shooting spree. Jack Reacher features the considerably more compact Cruise in a film that – though gifted its fair share of quasi-cerebral moments – works hard at shoe-horning a shoot-out or a car chase into every empty corner.

Bits of it are properly terrible. Poor Rosamund Pike plays a lawyer who, though plucky and bright, is doomed to finish the film strapped, Penelope Pitstop-style, to a chair while (Hayelp! Hayelp!) the hero fights his way to her rescue.

Bits of it are passably entertaining. McQuarrie, still best known for writing The Usual Suspects, engineers a gratuitous car chase that just about makes kinetic and dramatic sense.

And bits of it are so hilarious you will find yourself ramming whole fists in the mouth to stop yourself swallowing your own tongue. Is this really the desired effect? Is it the best bad film of the dying year? Either way, you couldn’t call Jack Reacher boring.

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