*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for sequences of
violence and action, some bloody images, language and thematic elements)
Released: October 21, 2016
Runtime: 118 minutes
Director: Edward Zwick
Starring:  Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Danika Yarosh, Patrick Heusinger, Aldis Hodge, Holt McCallany, Madalyn Horcher

Spoiler alert: in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Jack Reacher goes back.

That sort of obviousness is a baseline for this latest action entry from Tom Cruise. It’s the sequel to 2012’s very muscular Jack Reacher, based on the series of popular books by Lee Child, about a renegade ex-military officer who metes out his own brand of justice. Like its predecessor, Never Go Back is an enthusiastically retrograde guy flick that contrives a familiar yet still smart genre ride, coming up with inspired new ways to take out the thinly-drawn bad guys. It’s the fun version of exactly what you’re expecting.

If the Mission: Impossible film series is Tom Cruise’s own personal spin on the James Bond franchise, then Jack Reacher is becoming his throwback version of Jason Bourne (emphasized in part by the 8-bit browser game tie-in “Jack Reacher: Never Stop Punching”). Take away the amnesia and you can see a lot of core similarities: both characters are precise killing machines, dispensing of foes in pummeling fashion. They each come from military backgrounds but are now drifters on the lam, engaging in vigilante justice, while unearthing government conspiracies and corruption.

There are stark differences, too, not the least of which is stylistic. The Bourne films redefined the action thriller, with their kinetic fast-cutting shaky cam aesthetic and overall self-serious existential tone. Reacher movies embrace an old school swagger, refashioning into a modern mold the Action Procedurals that were a dime a dozen for the last two decades of the 20th Century. In them, the world is thematically black and white while the truth is simply hidden in a mystery that needs to be solved (and will be).

The plot here is a rote construct, with its hero being framed for murder in a broader military cover-up that Reacher must expose. His successor at the Army base he commanded, Major Susan Turner (Colbie Smulders, TV’s How I Met Your Mother), is also arrested on trumped up charges when she seeks answers for the mysterious death of two soldiers that served her in Afghanistan. Reacher and Turner team up to clear their names and find the guilty, and she’s as capable with a particular set of lethal skills as he is.

Never Go Back isn’t original in any sense, but it’s not limply predictable either. Director Edward Zwick, despite lacking the visual flair of Jack Reacher helmer Christopher McQuarrie, allows Reacher to stay one step ahead of formidable adversaries (and us) as the mystery is methodically uncovered. The action, meanwhile, satiates our video game bloodlust on a PG-13 level, and it’s all executed in a slick and satisfying Hollywood fashion.

A homeless teenage girl is thrown in for good measure as a third wheel for Reacher and Turner, as she may or may not be Jack’s long lost love child. That possibility makes her a target of the bad guys who want to use her as a pawn to bait Reacher. It’s a pretty standard addition, one used (as always) to raise both narrative and personal stakes, but the actors – including newcomer Danika Yarosh as the would-be daughter – really sell the connection, and Cruise uses it to dig underneath Reacher’s guarded, emotionally distant “no nonsense” loner shell. Plus, at the age of 54, Cruise is vigorously defying age and time.

There’s nothing special about Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, aside perhaps from the fact that studios don’t invest in these safe but reliable multiplex “base hits” nearly as much as they used to. These kinds of crowd pleasers (with far reaching home video and basic cable returns, I might add) may not get prime summer release dates anymore, but they still allow someone like Tom Cruise to wield star power in an age when that’s been marginalized by comic book brands, countless reboots, and adaptations of various pop culture intellectual properties.

Yes, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is a completely disposable entertainment, but it is entertaining.

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