The biggest worry moviegoers sometimes contend with when watching a sequel is whether they should go back and see the original. “Last Samurai” director Edward Zwick’s “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) qualifies as a satisfactory follow-up saga to 2012’s “Jack Reacher.” For the record, the filmmakers fashioned this film from the 18th novel in author Lee Child’s bestselling Jack Reacher series. Comparatively, the original “Jack Reacher” was adapted from the ninth novel. Since I’ve read neither novel, I cannot criticize the movies for their fidelity to the source material. Nevertheless, you could skip watching the original again and still savor his above-average, often entertaining, but ultimately straightforward thriller. The biggest problem with “Jack Reacher: Never Look Back” is the shortage of surprises to make you sit up and shout. At age 54, Tom Cruise is starting to show his years, but he is still game for pandemonium. As producer, he provides himself with several snappy scenes involving close-quarters combat where he throws and takes punches that would put mere mortals down for the count. While the chief villain doesn’t garner enough screen time to impress us with his perfidy, his sinister-looking, second-in-command henchman emerges as every inch a titan who takes nothing lying down until Reacher pummels him into pulp. Meantime, director Zwick, “Equalizer” scenarist Richard Wenk, and “Love & Other Drugs” scribe Marshall Herskovitz never give our hero a chance to dazzle sexy co-star Cobie Smulders with his amorous charm. By the way, she is no damsel-in-distress, and she knows a thing or two about street fighting. Although it doesn’t top the original, this ‘wrong person accused of a crime that she didn’t commit’ will keep you on your toes even when you suspect what is coming. Unfortunately, the formulaic story suffers from predictable plotting, a conspicuous lack of quotable dialogue, and could have had ten minutes trimmed off its running time.
Now, whether you either missed or skipped “Jack Reacher,” the protagonist is the only game changer in this franchise. A former U.S. Army Military Police officer with the rank of major, Reacher has long since left the military and lives off the grid without his own car, credit cards, and all the conveniences that most of us couldn’t survive without for two days. Meaning, he doesn’t carry anything more than he can pack up and exit with on the spur of the moment. Reacher amounts to a “Lone Ranger” of sorts with neither a mask nor a horse, but he can take care of himself because he is mentally and physically agile. Basically, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is a conspiracy thriller about a military police officer, U.S. Army Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders of “The Avengers”), who has discovered the shady shenanigans of a suspicious company that once made millions from its military contracts before the government shut them down. The villainous CEO of that company, a retired General Harkness (Robert Knepper of “Transporter 3”), sets out to safeguard himself by knocking-off everybody involved in it from the Army side. Unfortunately, he wasn’t prepared for Jack Reacher, Reacher’s friendship with Captain Turner, or Reacher’s ability to survive the worse beating of his life. At least, Harkness’ second-in-command henchman that Reacher confronts is a formidable enough adversary to knock Cruise down. Known only as ‘the Hunter,’ this rough-hewn individual dresses like a villain, from head to toe in black, and lives for every burst of adrenaline that he can draw from an incendiary incident. He craves to kill, kills without a qualm, but actually has a modicum of honor.
As I said earlier, I have no idea how many characters were kept from the novel, but the one character that “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” could have abandoned is the teenage girl, Samantha (Danika Yarosh of “Heroes Reborn”), who doesn’t have a clue about either cell phones or credit cards. Sadly, Zwick and company either imported or created this character to slow down our heroes and take the kinks out of what could have been a mysterious plot. Contrived is the only way to describe this character’s inclusion in this yarn. She is around to make Jack Reacher look bad when we know there is nothing bad about a hero as virtuous as Reacher. As it happens, Reacher wants to wine and dine Captain Turner for delivering him from a close call at the start of the action. When our hero arrives in Washington, D.C., to surprise Turner, Reacher learns to his chagrin that Turner has been arrested for treason and refuses to meet with him. Reacher finds out that somebody has filed a child support document against him. Apparently, it appears that Reacher may have fathered a child out of wedlock 15-years ago that he never knew about, and nobody contacted him about this indiscretion since “Jack Reacher.” Again, this entire subplot is disposable and detracts from what could have been a more compelling actioneer. At one point, the villains decide to concentrate their dastardly deeds against Reacher’s presumed daughter, and Reacher must treat her like his offspring to keep her from winding up dead.
This lackluster subplot snarls up everything and detracts from the impact of the two other characters. Not only is Captain Turner’s character slighted, but also General Harkness is given the short shrift. The Turner heroine could have been more three dimensional if she had been given more to do instead of having to babysit Samantha. True, Samantha redeems herself in two scenes, but a tighter bound hero and heroine would have been more stimulating. Instead, Reacher spreads himself thin between two sketchy women. You’ve heard the phrase ‘two’s company and three’s a crowd?’ The filmmakers could have dispensed with Samantha and the whole Reacher-as-a-deadbeat-dad subplot, and “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” would have fared infinitely better. General Harkness never establishes his notorious credentials, and actor Robert Knepper is wasted. Altogether, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” makes the grade, but it doesn’t surpass the original.