Dir: Edward Zwick. US. 2016. 118mins

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Two films in, the Jack Reacher franchise appears to be no threat to Mission: Impossible as everyone’s choice for Tom Cruise’s best vehicle. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is always faintly diverting but never particularly engrossing, putting the venerable movie star through his paces without really asking much of him. In this instalment, the titular drifter must confront the consequences of his nomadic lifestyle, but like the film’s ho-hum action sequences, nothing memorable comes of it.

Never Go Back plays like a cut-rate Jason Bourne or Mission: Impossible movie

Opening in the US and UK this weekend, Never Go Back represents a more modest box-office proposition than Cruise’s Mission: Impossible blockbusters, shooting for solid rather than spectacular grosses. The 2012 original grossed $218 million worldwide on a reported $60-million budget, and Paramount would be thrilled with comparable grosses for this sequel, which will benefit from being released in China. 

Cruise plays Reacher, a former high-ranking officer in the US military police who walked away from the job to become a roaming vigilante bringing justice to those in need. On a trip to Washington, D.C., he learns that the woman who replaced him, Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), has been court-marshalled, accused of espionage in the deaths of two American soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. Believing she’s innocent, Reacher frees Turner, sending them on a quest to uncover what really happened while the authorities give chase.

Never Go Back serves as a reunion between Cruise and his Last Samurai director Edward Zwick, who takes over for Jack Reacher filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie. Unfortunately, Zwick brings only a workmanlike professionalism to this adaptation of the Lee Child novel. In keeping with this franchise’s small-scale ambitions, Never Go Back plays like a cut-rate Jason Bourne or Mission: Impossible movie, delivering action-movie thrills on a relatively miniscule studio budget. As a result, there’s a vaguely generic tone to the proceedings, Zwick producing the expected amount of chase scenes and mano-a-mano fight sequences without much flair or style.

In theory, that stripped-down approach should only help amplify Cruise’s considerable charisma and intensity. But for all his ability to command the screen, the actor has yet to figure out what, if anything, is especially compelling about this character. Whereas the first film gave Reacher a chance to show off his sleuthing abilities in order to solve a mystery, Never Go Back is lighter on investigative work, instead trying to crack the loner’s guarded interior world. 

This is done mostly through the introduction of Samantha (Danika Yarosh), a bratty 15-year-old who Reacher discovers may be a daughter he never knew he had. Never Go Back suggests that, despite his wisecracking, lone-wolf demeanour, Reacher finds himself re-evaluating his life after learning this bombshell, but Yarosh so overdoes her character’s hard-edged cynicism that the two actors fail to establish any sort of rapport. That’s no small problem considering that her safety becomes an important on-going plot point once a nameless assassin (Patrick Heusinger) starts pursuing Reacher, Turner and her from D.C. to New Orleans.  

As in the first film, Never Go Back creates a little grownup sexual tension between Reacher and his female co-star. Rosamund Pike’s icy lawyer is replaced by Smulders’ no-nonsense cop, and again the movie puts the characters in close-quarters situations where the possibility always exists that their uneasy partnership might dovetail into steamy romance. In both movies, the filmmakers have some fun denying audiences the obligatory love scenes, teasing us without any payoff. But although Smulders conveys smarts and ass-kicking pizzazz, Turner isn’t particularly well-drawn, mostly serving as the character who lectures Reacher about the importance of letting people in.

A movie like this requires an enthralling villain, and unlike the intriguing stunt casting of documentarian Werner Herzog in the first film, Never Go Back is saddled with dull baddies, whether it be Heusinger’s dreary killer or Robert Knepper as a shadowy general whose sneering tone quickly indicates he’s not to be trusted. The mystery at the heart of Never Go Back never proves captivating, and a few revelations along the way have little impact. Even Cruise’s usual urgency feels a bit lethargic. “You’re very intense,” another character observes about Reacher. Yes, but he’s not much fun.  

Production companies: Skydance, TC Productions Worldwide distribution: Paramount, www.paramount.com 

Producers: Tom Cruise, Don Granger, Christopher McQuarrie

Executive producers: Paula Wagner, Herb W. Gains, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg

Screenplay: Richard Wenk and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz, based on the book Never Go Back by Lee Child

Cinematography: Oliver Wood

Production design: Clay A. Griffith

Editor: Billy Weber

Music: Henry Jackman

Website: www.jackreachermovie.com 

Main Cast: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Aldis Hodge, Danika Yarosh, Patrick Heusinger, Holt McCallany, Robert Knepper