Monday, October 24, 2016

THE B TEAM: a review of "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back"

Based upon the novel Never Go Back by Lee Child
Screenplay Written by Richard Wenk and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz
Directed by Edward Zwick
*** (three stars)

Whenever the word "formulaic" is utilized in describing the results of a finished film, it tends to be designed as a pejorative signifying a lack of originality, inventiveness, or any sense of creative juices at work. I have used that term countless times myself and more often than not, when a film is formulaic, the overall quality suffers greatly. But, why not look at the term from a certain flipside. The entire concepts of "formulas" stems from the fact that certain formulas do indeed work--they is how they became formulas in the first place--and I would concede that if the elements of the formula are pieced together well enough, the lack of creativity may be overlooked due to the skill of a job well done.

In the case of  Director Edward Zwick's "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back," the sequel to Director Christopher McQuarrie's "Jack Reacher" (2012), and based upon author Lee Child's long running, best-selling thriller novels, we have a film that is more than formulaic but somehow just effective enough to warrant a pass. It's funny because when I saw the first film, it happened to be at home as I had missed its theatrical run and even so, the film felt to be more than comfortable as a home viewing as it carried a certain lack of cinematic quality and felt as more of a throwback to 1970's television detective dramas and Sunday night movies.

"Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" feels to be cut from the very same cloth, a film that possesses a certain lack of ambition yet purposefully so. It is a movie that knows itself and does not try to be anything more than what it is  And is what it ultimately turns out to be good enough for you? If you happen to like your movies taut, simple, economical and none too taxing, then "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" is indeed a film that is just your speed. As for me, I wasn't quite underwhelmed and I was not fully satisfied either. But, somehow it seemed to succeed upon it sown meager terms and sometimes that just may be enough.

"Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" again stars Tom Cruise in the titular role as the former Major of the United States Military Police Corps now perpetual drifter/vigilante who returns to his old military base to formally meet Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), the figure whom now holds Reacher's old military position, with whom he has not only collaborated on various cases but has also carried a flirtation. Once Reacher arrives at the base, he is stunned to find that Turner has not only been stripped of her position, she has been placed under arrest for espionage, a charge Reacher is certain that she has been framed.

After breaking Turner free and the two become military fugitives, Jack Reacher becomes determined to get to the bottom of the conspiracy, which includes the presence of the teenaged Samantha  Dayton (Danika Yarosh), who may possibly be Reacher's daughter from an affair long ago.

That is indeed the plot of "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back," and Edward Zwick's film remains riveted to the constrains of the story's simplicity and structure, streamlining away all superfluous material, ensuring the final result is clean and tightly effective. Well...sort of. In some ways, the film's simplicity undercuts itself as its full two hour running time is more than  generous and certainly ends up providing some sequences that are rather wheel spinning and drowse-inducing due to the film's lack of complexity regarding its characters and story. It certainly would have been well served to have either added more to the proceeding to justify its length or to have clipped perhaps 20 minutes out. Regardless, Zwick's finished result seems to take its sweet time going where it needs to go and unapologetically so.

Again, this particular conceit of the film's presentation just makes me think less of the movies and more of classic television programs like "Kung Fu" (1972-1975) or those old Quinn Martin Production series that were never speedy affairs but just loped along in their own laconic ways, yet with a certain slow-burn intensity that was characteristic of the time. Additionally, I was also surprised by the film's lack of qualities that could be regarded as cinematic as this film, like its predecessor, just feels as if it has been made for the small screen.

Edward Zwick, with whom Cruise previously joined forces with in the David Lean styled widescreen epic "The Last Samurai" (2003), has also greatly scaled back his more cinematic aesthetics. Zwick has been a filmmaker of considerable gifts, being equally adept with handling the confines of of the small screen with intimate television dramas like "thirtysomething" (1987-1991), "My So-Called Life" (1994-1995), and "Once And Again" (1999-2002) as well as the massive canvas from films like "Glory" (1989), "Legends Of The Fall" (1994), "The Siege" (1998) and "Blood Diamond" (2006), among others. But with "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back," Zwick, like his predecessor in Christopher McQuarrie, has fashioned the second film in the series that would possibly feel more at home... at home!

Even Tom Cruise's strong, imposing performance, which is as 1000% committed as anything else he has performed over his legendary career, also feels decidedly scaled back from his trademark charisma and go for broke enthusiasm. Certainly, his reticence and cold hard stare is all delivered at the service of his interpretation of Lee Child's creation and it does indeed go a long way in showcasing another side, a darker, harder side of the Tom Cruise film persona, especially as he is crafting an additional franchise to work alongside his impossibly vibrant "Mission: Impossible" film series, of which he also serves as Producer as well as the star.

In a way, it seems as if "Mission: Impossible" may represent the A level of Tom Cruise's productions. So then, I would supposes that makes his Jack Reacher series represent the B team--one that almost runs in the opposite direction of his Ethan Hunt adventures. Where the "Mission: Impossible" series travels the globe, gathering Hunt and his team for a collection of intricately designed and increasingly outrageous predicaments to get themselves in and out of miraculously, the Jack Reacher series remain in less grand, grittier, more closely confined locations and even the cases themselves are more intimate than global.

All of this would be just fine, of course but these Jack Reacher films, especially this second installment does fall into that more formulaic category where "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" is a film of no real surprises where anything of the extraordinary can occur, either conceptually or cinematically While that does call for a certain restless seat-shifting for me, and quite possibly for some of you, again, I do think that this is possibly the intent of Cruise and his collaborators.

"Jack Reacher: Never Go Back," through the generic nature of its title (which actually doesn't even make very much sense as Reacher does indeed go back to his military base but on the other hand, if he didn't go back, there wouldn't even be a movie...but I digress) to its more "comfortable" approach, possibly made for movie-goers who wish for an easy night out with a mild diversion of entertainment, one without hefty pyrotechnics or anything remotely complicated. Something efficient and economical...perhaps something like Lee Child's original novels, certainly not great literature but you know what you're going to get and it is done well enough to ensure its legion of fans remain satisfied and eager for any follow-ups. On that level, the formula, such as it is, works well enough and without any apologies.

On that level, Edward Zwick's "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" succeeds. It is well acted, with Tom Cruise maintaining his unquestionable command of the big screen, a crisp storyline and some well choreographed fight sequences as well. Utilizing a culinary metaphor, the film wasn't satiating or sumptuous meal. Nor was it disposable cinematic fast food either. It was just more like a snack, while not quite hitting the spot, it is one that served its purpose.      

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