The first Jack Reacher film won acclaim for offering high quality, hard hitting, no nonsense action in a cultural climate that had shifted toward comic book excess and sci-fi weirdness. Jack Reacher was just a guy (though let’s face it, a rampantly cocky superhuman) on planet Earth, a drifter who didn’t take any shit and fixed problems where he found them.
In a sense, it was a throwback to what our memories tell us ‘90s mainstream action films did best. If so, its sequel Never Go Back reminds us of how awful most of those movies really were.
Never Go Back manages to fail on almost every level, but its problems begin with the source material. While the film diverts wildly from Lee Child’s novel (as it should; the book is great but would make a boring movie without some changes), it keeps a central premise which finds Reacher both falling in love in a weirdly asexual action hero way and dealing with the possibility that he may have a long-lost daughter.
This creates two problems. One, unlike book readers, we’ve only experienced one adventure with Jack Reacher so far and don’t yet know the character well enough to appreciate a story that affects his drifter lifestyle. This is essentially his On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, something that would be great later down the line but means very little this early in his cinematic life.
But even worse than that, it means we spend the whole movie with an annoying, sassy kid who constantly makes Reacher look like an idiot, a classic misstep even writer Lee Child knew to avoid by waiting until the end of his book to bring in the character.
The daughter plot might be tolerable if anything else in Never Go Back popped or had character. You can almost feel the frantic earnestness of Tom Cruise’s search for what made Reacher so fun in the first place. There are moments when he comes close, lines here and there that make you chuckle for their arrogance, but something is always off.
That something is probably Edward Zwick, a director who has none of Christopher McQuarrie’s muscular storytelling abilities or talent with action. Zwick doesn’t seem to understand what makes Reacher special at all and instead treats him as an action cypher. The always-game Cruise does his best but requires guidance to make his characters special. He gets none here.
Reacher’s condescending righteousness is gone. His impatience with idiots is gone. His brutality is gone. This leaves Cruise with very little to play. There’s one emotional scene near the conclusion where instead of reacting, Cruise simply darts his eyes around and wears a shifting series of facial expressions, as if the mere act of appearing human eludes him.
Never Go Back’s fight scenes (there aren’t many) are a travesty, taking us back to the quick-cut, incompressible action filmmaking we should be long finished with by now. One brief jail cell fight appears to conclude before initiated moves even finish, as though whole shots were simply excised by accident.
Cruise’s co-stars certainly don’t help things. Cobie Smulders simply acts stern the whole film. She and Cruise lack the chemistry to make their weird romantic friendship work. On the villain side, b-movie mainstay Robert Knepper can’t hold a candle to Werner Herzog, while sub-Joel Kinnaman Patrick Heusinger will make you long for someone with the charisma of Jai Courtney. Yes I just wrote that.
This is just a bad movie. Even worse, it’s a disappointing one, a sequel that manages to squander every good thing going for it. You will see Tom Cruise beat the shit out of some guys but with none of the first movie’s energy or fun. Like this iteration of Reacher himself, Never Go Back is just an empty jacket, best worn for a day and then discarded forever.