I am a big fan of films that are decidedly ambiguous in their moral commentary, it is not necessary, in my worldview that one must be provided answers to all life's large questions through a deeply engaging film, in fact, this is one of the many reasons I am enjoying the string of work coming from Paul Thomas Anderson. However, with that in mind I am completely bothered when a film attempts to embrace some degree of moral ambiguity, only to make it blatantly clear that it has created a fine line between right and wrong. The recent adaptation of Jack Reacher, from the novels of Lee Child, seem to exist in this problematic realm. Before being critical I want to note two things. First, I understand that this is an adaptation, therefore, it will be impossible to create a perfect reflection of any ideal character or subject study from the text, because you will invariably be required to cut elements out. Second, aside from a few moments of less than stellar acting on the part of Cruise and a few of the other performers, this is a solidly composed and well-delivered film from a formalist frame of reference. These elements help to explain why it got such surprising reviews even from people who found themselves to have preconceived notions about its assumed terrible nature. I am bothered though because the version of the screenplay that does emerge on the screen is something of an absurdity, because it manages to paint an image of Jack Reacher, an ex-military police officer, as being something far beyond the morally straight, in his quest for truth, even if it means a bit of deception along the way. Unfortunately, whatever version of the script this idea emerged never really came to fruition and instead viewers are provided with a character, and even villains who are supposed to navigate a grey area of moral values, only to end up reaffirming them, something I will elaborate on a bit later, because while I am quite critical of its implementation, I am also aware that this action film is a few strides ahead of its contemporaries, almost moving into the space of the superhero film. Of course, the biggest travesty of this film is to include both Robert Duvall and Werner Herzog in the cast and only provide them with what probably amounts to a collective of fifteen minutes of screen time.
Jack Reacher begins with a tragic and unexplained shooting that leaves five victims dead, leading to a quick investigation on the part of the police force that pins the murders on ex-Army sniper (Joseph Sikora) who is immediately put into custody and severely beaten by fellow convicts who see him as a ruthless and psychotic killer, however, before this occurrence he asks for the help of man named Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) and before the attorneys can even attempt to hunt down the man, Reacher emerges from nothingness to involve himself in the case. Reacher is a decidedly enigmatic individual, using only cash transactions and a completely nomadic lifestyle to avoid detection of any degree, as a clever aside he even changes his name when meeting people, always choosing a Yankees second baseman as his moniker. However, Reachers arrival does not solve the case by any means and the district attorney and his young gun aid are set on putting Barr on death row, although the D.A.'s daughter Helen (Rosamund Pike) seems to insist that him having a fair trial is of the upmost importance, even if he is assured to be guilty. Reacher seems solely concerned with obtaining a factual reason for each killing, believing that Barr's previous indiscretions as an ex-sniper void him of criticism and that there is clearly another layer of motive. All the while, Reacher begins navigating the crime world and discovers that there are crime syndicates out to get a particular building company, and that Barr was likely framed by this syndicate led by The Zec (Werner Herzog) a grotesque giant of a man whose will to survive led him to chewing off his own fingers and completely losing any sense of relation to the world. Reachers continual investigation leads him to also discover that the attorneys supposedly in charge of helping individuals are likely tied to the syndicate, putting Helen in an incredibly tense situation as her choices to delve deeper into the investigation result in her being a subject of scrutiny by her father and his aide. However, Reacher knows that by finding one person to affirm Barr's character, he will be able to make it to the killers, finding this in Cash (Robert Duvall) a cantankerous old man whose work at a shooting rage allowed him to come into contact with Barr, as well as another man who Reacher suspects to be the real killer. Of course, this is not the end of the film there is a large, excessive shootout leading to the death of nearly everyone involved, with the exception of the clearly delineated good guys.
I mention that the film ends with the good guys winning, because it spends so much of the film suggesting that everyone is capable of morally questionable decisions when in the appropriate setting. For example, it is not necessarily within Helen's moral goodwill to invade the victims of the shootings homes, yet when told that it will help her case she does so with fervor, much to the anger of a father, who clearly seems intent on blaming Barr for his daughters death, completely throwing innocence out the window. Even the attorneys on the case seem indifferent to morals, in fact, this becomes very clear by the end of the film, but as Helen makes clear, her father only chooses to pick cases he knows he can win, because such a reputation allows him to have sway over criminals even if they are innocent. Reacher himself also navigates some questionable ethical territory when he steals multiple cars and creates an overblown police chase an event that causes a ton of damage and fails in his ultimate goal of leading the cops directly to the real criminals. Furthermore, once his car is immovable he is afforded aid by a group of citizens who see his fleeing from a ton of cops as something to embrace, one man even offering him his hat to allow for a disguise as he hops on the bus and is driven away. People within the context of this film seem uncertain about what role authority plays, particularly since it seems subject to its own levels of corruption. One of the more intriguing conversations in the film centers around Reacher and Cash considering the threat of gun violence on the livelihood of his shooting range. Reacher knows that he only need to mention that Barr was a frequent visitor to his range to get a paranoid soccer mom to get the place shutdown. It is a decidedly valid threat and causes the film to exist in another layer of gun rights commentary, however, even when one assumes this to be an underlying theme it too is undermined and inconsistently discussed throughout. Also, The Zec, proves to be a less than stellar character, whose willingness to but his body into pain in the name of survival has its own degree of intrigue, and his admittance to having no clue about his real identity speaks volumes to his complexity, but he is killed moments later, for what is a rather inexplicable reason. Nothing is fully fleshed out in the moral world of the film and it is frustrating, thankfully, its showiness makes that somewhat bearable.
Key Scene: The car chase was quite enjoyable, it had been sometime since I had seen one with any degree of excellent execution, aside from the obvious ones in a certain Ryan Gosling flick.
This was a free theater screening for me and made it somewhat less terrible I imagine, although I can say that it is worth renting, if only as an example of how not to approach moralism in film.