(Christopher McQuarrie, USA, 2012)
An old-fashioned shoot -'em-up without a shot wasted, and with its tongue planted firmly in cheek. McQuarrie can match pretty much any "action" director working today, and is much better than most (I'm looking at you, Paul Greengrass). He's also an especially talented screenwriter, which doesn't hurt. While there isn't much that Jack Reacher could be accused of being "about," it does rather adroitly deal with the status of the alpha-male action hero circa 2012. Reacher the character is a throwback to at least twenty-odd years ago, when the American action-movie hero as rugged, lone individual was still alive and well. What makes McQuarrie's treatment distinctly of-the-moment is the way it deftly plays that archetype for all of its obvious hoariness and absurdity, but at the same time not denying its cartoonish appeal. Jack Reacher is a man out of time and out of place; in the digital age, he is refreshingly (and quaintly) analog. He's a rough-hewn hero, brainy and brawny, who traverses the country by Greyhound, searching for wrongs to be righted and bringing only his impressive skill-set and the clothes on his back.
The main appeal of the film is how successfully it plays through what are by now the classical tropes of the whodunit. Compared to pretty much any other recent film starring Cruise as action-man, the stakes here are comparatively low; we're not talking about the end of civilization as we know it, but a case of small-city justice. Several people have been murdered in an apparently random sniper attack in Pittsburgh, and the charge is to find out who is responsible. From the beginning, we know that a conspiracy is afoot, but the exact details and motivations are kept hidden until towards the end. The info is parceled out with a skill and craft that one can't help but admire; it's real bricks-and-mortar screenwriter stuff, but done with the mark of a truly gifted craftsman. This, from the (deservedly) Academy-feted McQuarrie, is to be expected; what isn't (at least to those who missed the thrilling precision of The Way of the Gun) is how good the action scenes are, especially the film's centerpiece car chase. McQuarrie films the sequence with rare wit and muscular grace, balancing the movement of cars, camera, and the rhythm of montage with a maestro's expertise. He forgoes the current fashion of manic cutting and spacial incoherence, instead delivering a chase that is both ripping good fun and impressively elegant.
For some reason it has become an uncommon treat to see a movie that tells a story so well, without fuss, pretension, or languor. Jack Reacher is not a masterpiece, but it is what is perhaps best described as a handsome film; well-crafted and functional, like a good armoire. It hasn't picked up much in the way of critical love, an oversight that can be variously attributed to reflexive Tom Cruise hating, the less-than-pedigreed source material (who is Lee Child, again?) and its conspicuous lack of a high concept. But most important to the film's success, and what I can't imagine otherwise perceptive people missing, is how damn funny it is. McQuarrie, and I would argue Cruise as well, never lose sight of how silly the whole thing is, and their acknowledgement of the kitsch allows the film to transcend its kitschiness. But here's the thing: it's not overtly showy or cutesy about itself. McQuarrie is smart enough to know that the way to make the silliness work for, rather than against, the story is to play it straight. Thus he avoids the laziness and exaggeration that a lesser director would employ. He cares about the thing, which is secure in its status as smarter-than-average entertainment, enough to make us care also.
p.s. - McQuarrie has a great, serious drama (or perhaps comedy) in him. I hope that his return to the director's chair of a reasonably successful mainstream movie affords him enough clout to make something more personal. We'll have to wait and see.