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Amazon's Reacher Reboots and Improves Lee Child's Hero

The biggest compliment one can give the new Amazon series “Reacher” is that Alan Ritchson owns the role now, despite it previously belonging to Tom Cruise. Cruise may not have been the right physical size for an elusive, brutal hero that author Lee Child originally wrote for a six-foot, five-inches tall person. But the megastar nonetheless tried to make the character his, especially during the gold rush of middle-aged star vigilante movies like “Taken” and “The Equalizer.” With Cruise's two Reacher films forgotten by the genre (though Christopher McQuarrie’s “Jack Reacher” is pretty good), in saunters Ritchson’s version of the character, fulfilling his hook from all along: he’s the smartest and the biggest guy in any room, when you normally get one or the other. 

Reacher finds more space to roam with this eight-episode first season that introduces him as an enigmatic, lone legend, and then watches him unravel different tiers of a conspiracy taking place in a sunny, peach pie slice of Georgia. The show hits you with a lot of questions immediately, like the mystery of this special military police investigator with a list of war medals, suddenly rolling into the quiet town of Margrave, GA, at the same time a body been found shot, its limbs broken, and covered with a cardboard box. Many bodies will pile up, a police station and a mayoral system will be turned upside down, and the encyclopedia in Reacher’s brain will keep flipping back to some clue about animal feed. 

The elaborate plot to showrunner Nick Santora's “Reacher” can feel a bit tangled—with a whole bunch of surnames to not get mixed up, constantly shifting positions of power in this small town, and a sense that the conspiracy is only going to get deeper, even though the flatly written villains practically twirl their mustaches in sinister delight. But it makes for some solid twisty TV storytelling, and death often has a formidable gravity as things get personal for practically every character. And thankfully we have people hunter Reacher guiding us through it all, who is not only often correct about his intuition with people, able to analyze clues to know what someone is thinking or where they’re going, but his detective skills keep the story moving from one non-obvious clue to the next. 

The larger fun of Reacher in this form is also to see a Schwarzenegger-grade action presence use their head so much—including the way that Ritchson’s Reacher headbutts people as if his forehead was a concrete block. When the filmmaking can keep up with his titanic limbs, it can practically make you dodge while looking at the screen, as in a prison shower rumble in the first episode that gives him a bone-breaking introduction as a heavyweight fighter. His punches hit like speeding trucks, and the camera often lets us see him take down numerous opponents at the same time, with brutal finesse. The action in general hints at how much care Amazon is putting into the show, by giving creative space for standout fight choreography. 

The universe of “Reacher” is expansive, with other characters playing a central part to the investigation, all sharing good chemistry with Ritchson. Willa Fitzgerald is her own force to be reckoned with as Roscoe, another cop suspicious of Reacher, who later enters into a relationship with him that the show tries to leverage by affirming her as an independent bad-ass. And Reacher finds a striking opposite in police chief Finlay (Malcolm Goodwin), a Harvard-educated, tweed suit-wearing, “Carry on My Wayward Son”-blasting, Black man from Boston who encounters racism in the predominantly white town he wants to protect. Though for a show that feigns playing evenly with gender and race, it can be overzealous, like when it has no problem writing a cringing scene in which Reacher explains blues music to Finlay. 

But if this first season is any indication, “Reacher” is bound to have as supportive a home on Amazon as with the incredibly popular “Jack Ryan.” The character seems to fit better here, with the benefit of Ritchson's own multi-tiered charisma, which only starts with how he looks and sounds like an inflated Paul Rudd. Like Reacher, Ritchson also feels strikingly new to the area, but you can’t stop noticing him. It doesn't get old to watch his brain compute, and see his fists respond. 

All of season one screened for review. "Reacher" premieres on Amazon tomorrow, February 4th.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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