The movie Jack Reacher – based on the novel One Shot by Lee Child, one of the many, many titles from the Jack Reacher bibliographia – opens with a man with a rifle driving a van to a multi-storey car park and then sniping five people as they walk beside a river. This movie is set in Pittsburgh, and, in keeping with its general ambition, attempts to give us a breathtaking shot of Pittsburgh’s unimpressive skyline. Never has a helicopter-shot of buildings looked so dull. At no point do any of the film’s locations – such as a mildly populated city centre, a car dealership, a suburban street, a motel, and a portable office at the bottom of a quarry – rise above the mundane. These could be the settings for almost any Raymond Carver short story.
Thrown into this box of wet dynamite is the lit match of an ageing Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher. Cruise has never managed to shake his insane gaze, which works for him here, but there’s a certain glimmer of tiredness at his edges. He looks like a wiped-out boxer. The sniper from the start of the movie has been identified minutes into the movie, he’s an ex-soldier whose only communiqué, when interviewed by police, is ‘Get Jack Reacher’ written on a legal pad. We know, or should know, that this isn’t actually the man we’ve see at the start, shooting everyone. It’s a frame-up.
When Jack Reacher is summoned from halfway across the country, we learn some key details about him: 1. He is a drifter and also morally the best person. 2. He’s an ex-military policeman who solves crimes. 3. He can’t be tracked by anyone because he gets money wired to him and always catches buses everywhere 4. He only owns one shirt. In fact when we first see Reacher he’s stealing a shirt and throwing the shirt he’s wearing – which, we can only assume, he wore throughout his last adventure – into the garbage. Later Tom Cruise will have to wash his shirt in a motel and in an accidental moment of vulnerability, we are allowed to fully view his ageing, naked torso, like an oyster missing its shell.
I first watched this movie a few years ago, in a spate of insomnia, when I was living on the Gold Coast and teaching the same class for the sixth straight semester in a row. My book had just come out, which meant I was worried about it all the time, but couldn’t do any actual work on it to distract myself, so instead I was staying up until about 3am every night and watching terrible movies on my laptop in bed. I’d given up cigarettes.
The plot of Jack Reacher is a confused mess, both needlessly intricate and incredibly simple. I’m not going to go into it, mainly because I don’t actually know why the people in this movie do anything. All you really need to know is that the sniping massacre at the start isn’t a massacre, only one person was the actual target, and then the rest were shot to cover it up. The reason behind this has something to do with real estate and building contracts. In a recent interview, Lee Child said, ‘I’ve been smoking weed for 44 years, five nights a week. I smoke it in a pipe because I’ve never been good at rolling my own joints.’ The movie, while quite conservative and definitely not the kind of freewheeling romp you’d normally associate with marijuana usage, is reminiscent of the sort of detail-free anecdote favoured by the permanently stoned.
What matters in this movie is Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher: a superhuman, who’s never wrong, who makes a point of telling people he’s not a detective, and doesn’t care about the case, or the plight of what’s happening in Pittsburgh – which is an odd development, to have an action movie about someone who doesn’t even want to be there. At one point he even threatens to catch a bus right out of town. We know this means he won’t be found. Cruise then beats up a whole bunch of people, first in front of a bar, then in a house, as he slowly works out what’s going on. The police end up chasing him and there’s a car chase and Cruise ends up evading them by putting on a baseball cap and climbing, again, onto a bus.
I should probably say here that I love this movie. It seems like I might be too hard on it, but sometimes that’s how it is with things you love. The mundane setting, the bus riding, the detective work of an insane drifter, all add up to something I found semi-intoxicating when I first watched it. The incredible lack of ambition, punctuated by short spates of intense action, felt a lot like my life, or what I thought my life might appear to be at the time.
And to top it off, just when the movie starts to drag, Werner Herzog shows up as the main bad guy, looking deranged, dressed in a long dark coat, and whispering at everyone like a dark wizard. In the most memorable of his scenes, he orders a thug who has failed to kill Jack Reacher to try and bite off one of his own fingers. When the thug can’t do it, he is, of course, shot in the head, but the most striking image is the perplexed look on Herzog’s face. He looks like a disappointed father, sitting across from his hungover son at the breakfast table.
There are a lot of problems with the movie, most I’ve already mentioned. When I went home for Christmas last year, my first Christmas back since I moved away from my home state, I made my mother watch Jack Reacher. I realised that the first 40 minutes are incredibly boring, and it only re-enforced what I’d suspected: that when I was watching this I was in the midst of a minor nervous breakdown – but staring at Tom Cruise standing in a motel, washing the only shirt he owns in a sink, it’s hard not to feel your whole future spreading out in front of you, like a cold, dark abyss. It’s relatable.
This piece was originally performed at the Kill Your Darlings Nerds Gone Wild event at the Emerging Writers’ Festival.