I recently watched Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, and had high hopes because I rather liked the first one. And there’s there’s always the appeal of watching Tom Cruise; regardless of how he lives privately, he is an immensely likeable screen presence.
The first film in this series established Cruise’s broken hero Jack Reacher as an emotionally-driven righter-of-wrongs. An ex-military Robin Hood who keeps a low profile and, presumably, wrestles with his own conscience for actions he’s committed in his own life. It had a moral spine, tenuously linked to war and the mental cost of military service.
In the sequel, the military is the story, with Reacher on a conspiracy trail, trying to help wrongly-imprisoned army major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Like the rest of Cruise’s action films of late, the male-female dynamic is generous and deeper than your standard Bond film (admittedly not a high bar to reach, but still). This might please a lot of people who are tired of the very worn-out cliche of damsels in distress etc.
But what really struck me about the film was its focus on war. Cruise is getting older, and his character shows a similar fatigue; he’s worn down by life, but he’s also, quite simply, older. Having a moral compass can excuse Reacher’s violence, but it doesn’t make him a happier person. And nor does war create a happier nation. And is it really safe if its inhabitants live in fear?
Depending on how deeply you look into them, action films rarely transcend their limitations as popcorn flicks. The film is certainly an action flick, but rather than take the well-trodden route of proving the US’ honour in foreign affairs, Reacher questions these things.
This isn’t a highly suspenseful film; it’s not even fast-paced. We know who the bad guys are and Reacher has no real investment in the outcome. It’s not the journey to discovery that’s strongest here, it’s the acknowledgement that war has casualties long after a tour of service has ended. It seems quietly to suggest that sometimes the enemy is within.
Reacher’s nemesis in the film – ‘The Hunter’ – is, like Reacher, ex-military. At one point Reacher asks him when he got back from service, clearly recognising that he’s a damaged man who is unable to separate himself from violence. “I don’t think I ever did,” The Hunter responds.
Another line: “We hurt people.”
I talked about the insidiousness of Hollywood’s cliched Bad Guys from foreign countries over at Junkee when London Has Fallen came out. I’ve criticised American Sniper for the way it glorified the US’ presence in the Middle East and reduced Arabs to dirty, bloodthirsty enemies abroad. But the latest Reacher indicates that Hollywood might just be recognising that audiences are not necessarily seeking more of the same US versus The World narrative. While the film isn’t as good as the original, here’s hoping this instalment is the beginning of a more refreshing, thoughtful narrative when it comes to war.