Action: JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK
Comedy sequels are for laughs, horror sequels are for death, and action sequels are for, obviously, action. We want more elaborate and creative set pieces (until we complain about everything being too grandiose, and it turns out nobody knows what they want anyway). As such, this genre benefits greatly from a quality main character, otherwise we might as well be watching an anthology of action scenes. We want the cocky, compelling, charismatic lead – your John McClane, James Bond, Indiana Jones – or the flat, boring lead – your Jason Bourne, Vin Diesel – but we want a lead.
The first Jack Reacher from 2012 was surprisingly charming. Although Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible movies have the big budget, the big cast, and the big set pieces, Jack Reacher had a unique quality of its own. I’d argue that it’s a cooler movie than any installment of Cruise’s trademark series. It had a darkly comic bent (that is particularly rare in a PG-13 movie) and a very distinctive personality. The pithy dialogue (such as in the bar scene), the classic car car chase, the villain unexpectedly cast and excellently played by famed director Werner Herzog were just some of the memorable elements in the Christopher McQuarrie feature. If there’s a short-hand example of what made this movie stand out, it’s this bathroom fight. It’s physical yet smart, borderline slapsticky yet brutal, and shows a directorial flair for creative use of space and blocking. Additionally, Jack Reacher wasn’t just an action movie, it was a murder mystery that invited us to figure out the truth along with the main characters.
Plus there was the main character: Jack Reacher, the epitome of the drifter character. He didn’t care about finding a love interest, he didn’t care about making friends – he cared about finding the truth and getting justice by any means necessary. With most of our action heroes who will either not kill, go on lectures about not killing, or kill in a way that, to quote Mel Gibson, reflects “violence without conscience,” it was nice to see a protagonist who was willing to get his hands dirty and do the morally ambiguous things generally not seen in a PG-13 movie. Even James Bond didn’t kill Blofeld at the end of Spectre. (As an aside, I never read any of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books so I have no connection to the character’s literary description; Cruse played him well and he was fun to watch. That’s all anyone should really want.)
So what happened with this year’s sequel? Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. The only word I can come up with for this misguided effort is “retooling,” in the television sense. All of the hard edges that defined the character and the initial movie were notably absent. The Jack Reacher who would shoot a defenseless elderly man was replaced with some much softer version of the character. This definitive loner was given both a potential love interest and a potential daughter, and he cared. While Reacher in the first one wouldn’t want to see harm to innocents, the fact that he could just move on without looking back was part of his appeal.
Yet even aside from the character shift, everything else was watered down too. Instead of being tasked to solve a mystery and ending up too deep, Jack is the target of a conspiracy pretty early on and thus all we have is running. Literally, running. He and love interest/partner Cobie Smulders’ Major Turner do a lot of calisthenics. All of the action sequences were tame and lifeless – gun fights, foot chases, and fist fights were shockingly unimaginative. However, it should be noticed that unlike the first one, which was written and directed by McQuarrie (who is currently doing the next Mission: Impossible movie), this one was made by By-The-Numbers-Oscar-Bait Maven Ed Zwick, a filmmaker who is essentially Brett Ratner with an Academy polish.
Does this mean the end for Jack Reacher? Hopefully not, because the first one is genuinely really good and it would be great to see that incarnation of Jack Reacher return. And remember, action movies can right their course. Cruise himself made it work with Mission: Impossible II, which came back with the franchise resurrecting Mission: Impossible III and whose two subsequent sequels have maintained an exceedingly positive reputation. And who can forget Die Hard? Die Hard 2: Die Harder came back with the far superior Die Hard with a Vengeance – which was then unfortunately followed with the shameful Die Hard Fights Computers and Die Hard Fights Russia. So…at the very least maybe we can get a good third installment.
The next major sequel we’re going to get is Bad Santa 2 on November 23, 2016, it and already has a remarkable 25% on Rotten Tomatoes. This film, the follow-up to the 2003 original, will probably follow down the unfortunate path of Zoolander No. 2 and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Like with the Stiller starrer, it’s been over a decade since the first one, and the jokes seem essentially the same – except lacking the hard edged novelty that made the first movie so good. And, like Reacher, I predict a lot of character retooling. Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie Stokes’ will still ostensibly be a rascal, but by introducing his far more ‘bad’ mother (played by Kathy Bates) and giving a tangible reason for his scoundrelness, they’re obviously giving the movie a villain against whom he can play less bad and redeem himself at the end.
Sequels have always been hard to pull off. It might even be harder now that we’ve become accustomed to more serialized and/or interconnected storytelling. The ‘one-off mission’ format might never be fully abandoned, but it definitely feels lacking. This year’s X-Men: Apocalypse is just one example of an okay movie that suffers from feeling disconnected to a larger universe (even its own X-iverse). It’ll be interesting to see how James Bond responds once Craig leaves. Whatever reason sequels fail, we’ll have plenty of more data points in 2017. January alone gives us Underworld: Blood War, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and xXx: The Return of Xander Cage Extreme sports! That was a thing once!