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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014

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Jack Reacher hits theaters today.
Jack Reacher hits theaters today.

"Jack Reacher" an uneasy but entertaining mix

Those walking into "Jack Reacher" with little knowledge of author Lee Child’s popular book series are probably asking themselves "Who is Jack Reacher?" Moviegoers walking out of Tom Cruise’s latest action romp, on the other hand, are probably asking themselves "What is ‘Jack Reacher’?"

Because after 130 minutes, it’s hard to walk out of the theater knowing what kind of movie "Jack Reacher" intends to be. It’s all entertaining, but it’s also a combination of genres and tones that don’t quite sit well together.

Cruise stars as the title character, an army cop turned drifter for justice with a name seemingly made exclusively for action movie fame. He makes his way over to Pittsburgh (I don’t know if they ever say it’s Pittsburgh … but it’s clearly Pittsburgh) after a sniper guns down five random people in broad daylight with the kind of chilling, matter-of-fact realism that’s sure to make audience members uncomfortable after recent events. More on that in a second.

All the evidence points toward James Barr, a former military sniper who previously got in trouble in Iraq. Reacher, the officer behind the investigation in Iraq, is convinced of Barr’s guilt and wants to make sure he’s put away for good, either in a prison cell or a casket. After Barr’s attorney (the lovely Rosamund Pike from "An Education") talks him into taking a second look at the evidence, however, Reacher begins to think there might be something more going on than a simple gunman-gone-crazy. The mysterious cars and henchmen following him would seem to validate that theory.

But back to the sniper scene, the uncomfortable elephant in the room. The opening sequence will inevitably trouble many in the audience, more so than the filmmakers could’ve ever imagined while making the movie. If you’re looking for fun action escapism for the whole family this holiday, "Jack Reacher" doesn’t really qualify anymore.

Before any angry letters get written, however, remember the movie was in production well before this past wave of tragedies, and, to the film’s credit, it doesn’t fetishize the gun violence. It’s understandably easy to be reactionary, but unfortunately timed and distasteful are two different things, and "Jack Reacher" easily falls into the first category.

Now, returning to the movie.

"Jack Reacher" seems to be going for a modern day "Dirty Harry" vibe (which features an even more overt tie to a real crime spree – Scorpio as the Zodiac – but nevermind, back to the movie, back to the movie!), featuring a likeable anti-hero with a strong moral code that may not exactly go word-for-word with the law.

But whereas "Dirty Harry" and other movies of its ilk seem confident in its goals, "Jack Reacher" seems less sure of itself. Half of the movie plays like an intense realistic ’70s paranoia thriller, with cars following our heroes down over street, long periods of time spent talking the investigation and every event a cog in some greater conspiracy.

Even the action is filmed with minimal flash; there’s never music (slightly disappointing because that rockin’ guitar music in the trailer was awesome), and it all seems refreshingly practical, featuring real stunts. A great car chase near the middle of the film looks like Cruise and company are actually behind the wheel, only adding to the intensity.

The other half of the film plays like a silly ’80s-style action fantasy, with literally every woman on-screen mesmerized by Reacher, goofy action quips and even goofier action moments, highlighted by a bathroom sequence in which two henchmen do their best impersonation of the Three Stooges, bonking each other on the head with baseball bats and crowbars. The only thing missing is someone going "nyuk, nyuk, nyuk."

Luckily for "Jack Reacher," they’re slamming two entertaining, well-made brands of action movie together. It’s amusing to watch Reacher toy around with inept goons and drop tough guy one-liners, especially with Cruise in the lead. Fans of the book may question his casting because of his notoriously short stature, but if you’re really that unnerved by his height, you’re not seeing the forest for the trees. Few actors can deliver an effortless star performance like Cruise, 5’ 7" frame be damned.

At the same time, it’s captivating to watch Reacher work his brain like a grown-up version of Encyclopedia Brown, putting the pieces together and barely staying a step ahead of the villain, played by the famous German director/documentarian Werner Herzog in strangely menacing but underutilized turn. Seriously, his henchman, played by Jai Courtney (aka John McClane’s son in next year’s "A Good Day to Die Hard"), gets more screentime, and though he’s awesomely sinister too, he’s still just the heavy.

That aside, the slow-building legal mystery is intense and intriguing, even when the deadly conspiracy itself is revealed to be rather ridiculous. Not to spoil anything, but it seems like a lot of effort and dead bodies for a rather mundane goal. However, it works as a means to an end, and that end is watching Cruise be charming and punch bad guys in the face, sometimes with rocks.

Unfortunately, while these two movie styles are fun, they have to sit uncomfortably together in the same film. It’s hard to get the full comedic entertainment out of the goons’ bumbling Keystone Cops routine when a few scenes before, we were taken through each of the sniper victims' last moments (one of whom is caring for a child before her final moments).

Each element is handled well – the aforementioned sniper victim sequence is actually quite powerful – but they belong in separate movies where the sequences of action fantasy and serious drama don’t undercut one another.

You’d think that two entertaining movies for the price of one would be a good thing. In the case of "Jack Reacher," however, it’s reaching just a bit too far.  

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