Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) isn’t a talky fellow. He’s a loner with no middle name and no fixed address. He lives in fleabag motels, gets around by hitchhiking, and tends to communicate with his fists, though only after repeated warnings have failed. He is not, to put it mildly, father or husband material.
So of course “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back,” based on Lee Child’s novel, has the bright idea of outfitting Jack with a makeshift nuclear family consisting of a female Army major, Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who’s had a bloody conspiracy wrongly pinned on her, and a teenage girl named Samantha Dayton (Danika Yarosh), who might or might not be Jack’s daughter by a previous dalliance. This is the kind of setup that Clint Eastwood might’ve handled with aplomb back in the day—in fact, Eastwood’s early masterpiece “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” tells a thematically similar story about a loner who acquires a "family"—and although Cruise is diminutive compared to Eastwood, he does a credible version of Clint’s squint and hair-trigger lethality. His performance tries to delve deeper than the film will allow. We get a sense, more from watching Cruise than from any of the forgettable dialogue the character’s been given, that Jack inflicts violence because it’s the only thing he’s really good at; that it may in fact be his only form of cowardice—a means of running away from adult responsibilities—and that he has no idea what to say to a romantic partner or a child during quiet moments.
It’s a pity that “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” fails to support Cruise and his co-stars, all of whom are acting as if their lives depended on it. There’s a great movie buried somewhere in here—a strange but beguiling family comedy and a meditation on nature vs. nurture, with a bit of shooting and punching thrown in—but the filmmakers never figure out how to excavate it. There’s a touch of 1980s Hong Kong action cinema in the way that director Edward Zwick and his co-writer Marshall Herskovitz (rewriting Richard Wenk’s script) juxtapose bone-breaking fisticuffs with deadpan-goofy scenes where Jack and Susan—who’s basically a female Jack, with the same anger-flexing jawline—struggle to protect and half-assedly parent Samantha as the trio runs from city to city, fending off assassins and trying to clear Susan’s name. But Zwick doesn’t have the Hong Kong wildness required to pull off that kind of film. He’s an intelligent director, but too earnest and careful for material like this.
There are a handful of genuinely funny moments in which Jack, Susan and Samantha—a street-tough kid whose mom was a prostitute and drug addict—fall into the familiar “Father Knows Best” patterns even though they’re holed up in a New Orleans hotel while trying to get to the bottom of an Afghanistan-based arms smuggling operation run by a Halliburton-type military contractor. None of them have experience behaving within a traditional mother-father-child configuration, so they’re a bit like actors who’ve been thrown into a play without benefit of having read the script and are forced to improvise, badly. Susan and Samantha’s version of mother-daughter bonding includes a tutorial on how to wrench a gun from a man’s hands and kick him in the testicles. When Samantha sneaks out without permission one night, Jack and Susan confront her when she returns, and Jack half-sputters, “Where were you?”