Review by Rob Vaux
You certainly can’t fault Jack Reacher: Never Go Back for a lack of confidence. It’s one of those not-quite-as-good sequels that no one really asked for, a follow-up to the Tom Cruise actioner from a few years ago that repeats the same basic trick to somewhat diminished effect. That said, it still learned the right lessons from the first film, and while it suffers a few notable absences, it makes up at least part of the deficit with some welcome additions.
We do certainly feel the loss of writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who helmed the first film and brought his great ear for dialogue with him. The script for the sequel is more pedestrian, and lacks the hard-boiled snap that helped make the original so much fun. In its place comes Edward Zwick, a reliable director with less of a flourish in his bag of tricks, but an interesting approach to the character.
Zwick’s previous movies (Glory, The Last Samurai and Courage Under Fire among others) often looked at wounded soldiers, and how they do their jobs in spite of the emotional damage they’ve suffered. That makes for an interesting take on Cruise’s Reacher, a standard-issue Supreme Ultimate Bad Ass who flirts with terminal Mary Sue-dom at times. Zwick gives him a possible daughter (Danika Yarosh) to care about, providing vulnerability and a sense of loss to a character who used to only exist for the sole purpose of punishing the wicked.
The first Jack Reacher had the magic bullet of details to spice things up. McQuarrie didn’t just show Reacher being a badass. He showed us how Reacher achieves his bad-assery – the way he notices a tail, for example, or how he can psychologically undo an opponent before the fight begins – which made for a fascinating viewing experience in and of itself. The sequel can’t quite match the gee-whiz novelty of those tidbits, but it still pays attention to present them logically: never taking Reacher’s skills as a given or skating over notions that might seem too far-fetched.
Adding the girl helps too, if only because it catches Reacher off-guard and gives his enemies an opening to exploit. The plot is, frankly, pretty boilerplate. One of Reacher’s Army contacts (Cobie Smulders) is accused of a crime she didn’t commit. He springs her (putting them both on the run), and needs to get to the heart of the conspiracy against her before they both end up dead.
It’s fairly uninspired, though Zwick has the technical polish to make it engaging, along with some suitably odious bad guys for Cruise to pound into bratwurst. The star himself helps the cause as well: his advancing age puts a shelf life on his status as an action star, but he’s never less than believable as this character, and his innate charisma hasn’t dimmed an inch.
The film’s biggest asset, however, is actually his costar. Having labored on the sidelines of the MCU for many years, Smulders eagerly takes advantage of the chance to play action heroine. She easily holds the screen with her higher-wattage costar, suggesting what she could do if Hollywood just throws a few more meaty parts her way. Her presence gives Never Go Back a distinctiveness that serves it well, and a reason to tune in beside just rehashing the first film.
At the end of the day, it’s still product, of course, and pretty standard-issue product at that. Its joys are modest, but they’re well-earned and Zwick gives us a reliable rooting interest in the outcome. Simple entertainment rarely needs much more to justify the price of a ticket. Never Go Back climbs just as high as it needs to, but makes sure the steps don’t slip.