Jack Reacher: Never Go Back returns Tom Cruise to the role of the ex-U.S. Army Military Police Corps Officer turned drifter, Jack Reacher, and supplants him into a story already in motion. Through some very random telephone calls, he somehow becomes embroiled in the narrative path of Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) to find out what happened to two soldiers who died under suspicious circumstances in Afghanistan. Along the way, he’s folded into a subplot of being a potential dad of a teenage girl.

What works so well about the stories that Reacher investigates is that they’re not world ending events – there’s a grounded reality to them that counteracts Mission: Impossible‘s Ethan Hunt’s ‘saviour of the world’ actions. Reacher realises that there’s dirt on the world that needs cleaning up, and he’s the cleaner. The first film had an intriguing plot which paired Reacher with an exciting companion in Robert Duvall’s ex-marine, alongside a low-key, but effective Werner Herzog as the villain.

Unlike Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, Reacher is a personality black hole. Which is partly the point of his character – he moves in the shadows, working as a lone wolf, righting wrongs and snapping necks. He’s calm, he’s calculated, he’s always thinking three steps ahead, and as a character, he gives the eternally charismatic Tom Cruise little to work with. It’s then up to director Edward Zwick to provide variance to the mix and inject some excitement or intrigue to the mystery – to which, he fails dismally.

Zwick’s direction is paint by the numbers, and unfortunately utilising the beigest beige he could find to colour in the spaces. I know it’s cheap to rattle off a list of ‘yeah, but the first film did this, and the first film did that’ – but when the first film established a great foundation for an interesting character, and the sequel squanders all of that away with a cheap dollar store mystery and straight to VHS villains, you can’t help but feel cheated. Action is flat and limp, feeling more like a rehearsal than the actual main event. What’s lacking is energy to fuel the scenes and bring everything halfway to life.

However, what lets Jack Reacher: Never Go Back down the most is that the core plot is never intriguing enough to make you genuinely interested in finding out what the conclusion is. Anyone who looks like a thug or someone nefarious is eventually proven to be exactly that. This may not matter so much if the villain were worth a damn – but he’s such a non-event and his motivation is the pure definition of bland. When the main goon (Patrick Hausinger as the thankless ‘The Hunter’) makes Jai Courtenay’s Charlie from the first film seem like a nuanced, multifaceted character, well – you know you’ve got issues. Films like this really make you admire the power of a great MacGuffin.

While I’ve never read the Lee Child series that Jack Reacher is based on, it does feel like a strange move to base this film on the eighteenth book in the series. What about this story stood out from the eighteen or so other books in the series as the next story that just had to be adapted? If there were some kernel of an idea that was crying out for a big screen adaptation, it’s definitely not displayed on screen. Most of what is presented here wouldn’t feel out of place on an episode of JAG or NCIS.

The film is replete with the stock standard ‘Cruise running’ scenes. In fact, it seems it’s the main mode of transportation for Reacher and Turner as they run around the countryside. So much so, that they may just randomly appear running in a scene if the story dictates that it’s necessary for them to be at that location – even if it has no logical progression from the last scene. Often there is little explanation as to why they are at a location, other than it’s necessary for the plot to move forward at that point.

It’s saying something that the only person who walks away from this film with any dignity is Cobie Smulders who commits entirely to her performance as Susan Turner, leaning into the militaristic aspects of her character with gusto. Her fight scenes near the climax of the film add a much needed kick to wake you up and remind you that it’ll all be over soon. While she may not equal the stunning Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation or Emily Blunt’s great alien-stomping warrior in Edge of Tomorrow, Smulders does help support the growing trend of equal female characters within Tom Cruise action vehicles. Given his almost lifelong producing partnership with Paula Wagner, it’s great to see the two provide an equal platform for women to kick ass in his films. It’s even better that Smulders’ Turner doesn’t immediately turn into a love interest for Reacher.

It’s then questionable why the two are saddled with a random ‘daughter’ subplot that comes out of nowhere and drags the film further down into the mire. Danika Yarosh does the best she can as Samantha Dayton – a teen who is unwillingly thrust into Jack Reacher’s life – however, her character feels like the sort of character that would appear in the third or fourth entry in the series, just as the writers are starting to run out of ideas. The old adage that if you’re running low on plot threads, simply throw in a pregnancy or a wedding and you’ve suddenly conjured up a new plot thread, doesn’t work as well for a Jack Reacher film.

I’d like to say that even in all this blandness there is a scene to recommend watching the film for – but, outside the great opening, there is nothing. Part of me wishes that this entry was more of  blend of A Few Good Men and Mission: Impossible, but it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe fans of military based stories would be more forgiving of the weak plot, but for me, I needed more than what was delivered.

Director: Edward Zwick
Cast: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Danika Yarosh
Writers: Richard Wenk, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz

Images ©2016 Paramount Pictures.