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Non-Review Review: Jack Reacher – Never Go Back

It is a strange experience, to watch one’s action hero icons grow up.

Tom Cruise is approaching fifty five years of age, although Jack Reacher: Never Go Back convincing places his character in his “mid-forties.” Watching the film, this feels entirely reasonable. Cruise is still a lean, mean, action-film-making machine with a dynamism that would put many younger stars to shame. If Tom Cruise isn’t in peak physical condition, he cannot be far off. Watching Never Go Back, it is not Cruise himself that gives the game away. The leading man is as limber as ever, energised at just the thought of another impressive stunt sequence.

You know where to Reacher me, if you have to.

You know where to Reacher me, if you have to.

It is the memory of Tom Cruise that gives the game away. Studies suggest that the peak age for cinema attendance is still somewhere between eighteen and forty. Tom Cruise would have been headlining films long before many modern movie-goers started attending the cinema with any real frequency. From Risky Business to Legend to Top Gun, Cruise has been a cinematic fixture for over three decades. That is a remarkable accomplishment, serving as something of a cultural constant.

For most of its runtime, Never Go Back feels very much like a middling demonstration of Cruise’s action movie bona fides. Like Jack Reacher, this is a standard actioner without the confident direction that has elevated Tom Cruise’s best work of the past few years. However, Never Go Back comes alive in those fleeting moments where it brushes against the idea of its leading man facing adulthood, positioning itself as a weird movie about a nineties action movie hero who inexplicably finds himself saddled with a makeshift family.

Literal life line.

Literal life line.

Never Go Back is incredibly generic. Edward Zwick lacks the confidence of the best action directors to work with Tom Cruise, never matching the visual imagination of Brad Bird, the thrilling momentum of JJ Abrams or even the clean efficiency of Christopher McQuarrie. Zwick’s direction is largely lifeless. It is workmanlike. The camera, like the plot, moves in straight lines. At one point, the camera slides (rather than pans) down a drug addict’s arm only to zig slightly to pull up to Jack Reacher’s face. There is a very direct “a to b to c” quality to it.

Indeed, the most striking aspect of Zwick’s direction is his astonishing bluntness. There is very little visual imagination in Never Go Back, from the generic low-key typeface of the opening titles through to the very relaxed flashbacks that show Reacher plotting a key escape through to the wonderfully cheesy “zoom-in-zoom-out” flashes for emphasis during one gunfight when Zwick wants the audience to at once be aware of the gun lying in the middle of the combat zone and the fact that a key character has spotted the gun.

Please hold while we try to connect with you.

Please hold while we try to connect with you.

In many ways, Never Go Back recalls a much simpler kind of action movie, a more straightforward tale about a wandering hero who hitch-hikes his way across America in a white shirt as the sun sets over his shoulder. There are points at which Never Go Back feels very much like a lost eighties or nineties action film, albeit one with a much more effective leading man than Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme. Reacher is a man wandering across America doing good, because good needs to be done.

There is a comfort in these clich├ęs. Although Never Go Back touches upon topical contemporary issues, it deals very much in stock nineties movie tropes. At one point, a cynical army contractor contemplates Reacher’s file in a cold Southern drawl. “They ran out of medals,” he cautions the impetuous young killing machine who is carving his way across the United States. Towards the end of the film, this young henchman goads our hero, “I’m gonna hurt you like you’ve never hurt before.”

It follows.

It follows.

Despite its themes of military corruption and its suspicions about the privatisation of war, Never Go Back feels like some lost VHS classic that was reworked slightly for the War on Terror era. The evil plot is a collection of stock tropes that date back to the Vietnam War. There is an extended sequence where Reacher wreaks havoc on both an airplane and at an airport without any of the modern security that one might expect. This is all stock b-movie action stuff, albeit delivered with a technical (if not creative) sheen.

(Indeed, approached in these terms, the movie’s brightest spot is a small supporting performance from Robert Knepper as the head of an incredibly shady private contractor that is up to no good. Although never quite matching Werner Herzog’s memorable screen villainy in Jack Reacher, there is a sense that Knepper understands what he is supposed to be doing. He is Michael Caine in On Deadly Ground or Kris Kristoffersson in Fire Down Below. Unfortunately, the film decides it would rather spend time with his infinitely less interesting psycho sidekick.)

There is a household in New Orleans.

There is a household in New Orleans.

As a piece of nineties nostalgia, Never Go Back is a decidedly dreary affair. Indeed, it is perhaps a more accurate reflection of the workmanlike quality of many of the decade’s action films, if not quite a celebration of their memory. However, the most interesting aspects of Never Go Back come when the film plays with this idea of Jack Reacher as a nineties action hero who has arrived several decades too late. This is a character who might have committed himself to the life of a lone wolf, even though the universe itself suggests he probably should be settling down.

The film opens with Reacher sparking up an unlikely friendship with Susan Turner, the military officer who seems to have found herself cleaning up after his one-man demolition-derby rampages through the American heartland. In fact, the two even suggest dinner together the next time that he passes through Washington. His biological clock is ticking, after all. Of course, this is an action movie, not a romantic comedy. Reacher and Turner inevitably find themselves on the run together, caught up in a stock action movie conspiracy.

To be fair, the movie does literally open with Jack Reacher's arrested development.

To be fair, the movie does literally open with Jack Reacher’s arrested development.

However, things get really interesting when Reacher is confronted with a young woman who might be his daughter. Through the kind of inconvenient timing that only happens in action films, Reacher happens to make that connection at the exact moment he is embroiled in a life and death struggle. He is forced to take the young woman, who may or may not be his daughter, on the run with him. The result is the formation of a weirdly orthodox surrogate family unit taking a road trip to New Orleans together.

It is the most interesting angle of the film, repositioning its wandering hero as a middle-aged married man with a dysfunctional family. Even as the enemy bears down on him, Reacher finds himself tied up in stock familial beats. Will his maybe!daughter attend a posh prep school? Will the family make it through the airport in one piece? At one point, Reacher and Turner are shocked and appalled to discover their surrogate daughter has not come home. “Where were you?” they demand as she arrives in the door the following morning. She replies, “Out.”

You gotta hands it to him.

You gotta hands it to him.

There is an uncomfortably regressive aspect to all this. At times, Reacher seems quite uncomfortable with the suggestion that Turner is at least his equal. If Reacher is to find himself in a conventional family unit, it seems, he will adhere to traditional gender roles. Indeed, Never Go Back is disappointingly uninterested in what it must be like to be part of a badass action movie surrogate family. Instead, it is primarily concerned with what it means to be the patriarch of a badass action movie surrogate family.

Still, this is the most interesting aspect off the film, the part that seems most self-aware. It seems to wonder what might have happened had a nineties action hero actually settled down at the close of that decade. It is suggested that Reacher’s maybe!daughter is fifteen years old, meaning that she would have been conceived before 9/11 ushered in the twenty-first century. Never Go Back seems to tease an interesting parallel branching path, as if piecing together a weird “where are they now?” piece for every action hero Sylvester Stallone played in the nineties.

"Going on the run with somebody is usually like a third date thing."

“Going on the run with somebody is usually like a third date thing.”

Sadly, Never Go Back doesn’t quite embrace this idea. Instead, this tangent is left simmering in the background of what is ultimately a fairly lifeless (if very efficient) nineties action movie. Unfortunately, maybe you can never go back.

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