“I’m the guy you didn’t count on.”
After the first Jack Reacher film made a pretty average return at the box office nobody really expected a sequel. And that would’ve been a huge shame as the first film was an excellent action thriller, superbly directed, and containing some seriously awesome action. Plus the Lee Child book series that the film was based on is still an untapped well of crunchy action and awesome one liners such as ‘either you take your hand off my chest, or I’ll take it off your wrist’ (from Jack Reacher: Worth Dying For). So when star and producer Tom Cruise stated that there will in fact be a second film fans of the first were understandably excited. Director and screenwriter of the first film, Christopher McQuarrie, wasn’t coming back though – and he was an instrumental part to why the first was so great. Does the second Jack Reacher film retain the brilliance of the first despite a change in director and writer?
The plot of Never Go Back is lifted from the book of the same name and retains most of the story beats. The central mystery here is around Major Turner, the woman doing Reacher’s old Army job and played by Cobie Smulders. Reacher has become fond her after sharing a series of flirty phone conversations so he’s understandably shocked when he arrives to meet her for the first time and discovers she’s been taken into custody and being charged with espionage. Not one to let things go, Reacher breaks Turner out of her military prison and sets off to solve the conspiracy she’s become embroiled with. Oh, and Reacher might have a 15 year old daughter that he’s never met too. It’s a mostly good central mystery too, but one that falls short of the first film. The plot with Turner is interesting but never quite as engaging as the stuff in the first film, mainly due to the lack of a villain on par with the wonderful Werner Herzog in the first film. Robert Knepper tries his best here as the big bad but doesn’t show up till the end and that point he’s practically been foiled already. The setting is also arguably not as gripping, at least until they get to the visually arresting New Orleans. Before this the action takes place in Washington DC, somewhere incredibly familiar to anyone who has watched their fair share of thrillers. Pittsburgh in the first film was more unique and allowed for some interesting stuff in a location not familiar to most audiences. Never Go Back still has a lot of fun in DC though and this is only increased when they get to New Orleans.
Whereas in the first one you had big names like Rosamund Pike, David Oyelowo, Richard Jenkins, Robert Duvall, and (a surprisingly good) Jai Courtney, the sequel goes considerably smaller. Except Cruise and Smulders there isn’t another face in the cast a casual movie goer would recognise. This isn’t really an issue though as the cheaper cast perform very well and it’s a whose who of talented but under appreciated ‘that guy’ actors like Holt McCallany, Robert Knepper, and Jason Douglas. The change in director between films (from Christopher McQuarrie to The Last Samurai’s Edward Zwick) also makes Never Go Back feel a little low-rent compared to the first film. Zwick’s a talented director (The Last Samurai is possibly one of the best films of the 2000s) but he lacks McQuarrie’s action/thriller flair. It gives the whole thing a B movie sequel feel. The Predator 2 to Jack Reacher’s Predator if you will. But as anyone who has seen the awesome Predator 2 will tell you, that’s not necessarily always a bad thing. The film still contains bucket loads of crunchy violent action (the type that made Jack Reacher the BBFC’s most complained about film of 2012) and Tom Cruise gives it 110% as always. A stand out fight between Reacher and Patrick Heusinger’s ‘The Hunter’ sees Reacher in a rare moment getting his ass handed to him as he is thrown about a restaurant kitchen. The fight scenes in this sequel remain strong and the final fight between Reacher and The Hunter on a New Orleans rooftop as the annual Halloween ‘Krewe of Boo‘ parade takes place underneath is a very cool set piece. Co-star Cobie Smulders gets her fair share of action too, managing to hold her own against action veteran Cruise and getting possibly the best kill of the film in the process.
At this point in his long and varied career you pretty much know what you’r getting with a Tom Cruise action flick and here, Cruise doesn’t disappoint. Once again he gives it his all, seemingly doing all of his own stunts even now at the ripe old age of 54. His portrayal as Reacher has always been a controversial one, something the first film only half way alleviated. It’s almost like in casting Reacher the film makers chose the complete opposite actor of the book character. At 250lbs and 6 and a half feet tall Reacher isn’t exactly the spitting image of Cruise but performance wise, be it in dialogue or in a fistfight, Cruise channels Reacher like nobody else could. Reachers oft mentioned weakness of not being very fast might not apply to the always on-the-move Cruise but he pulls it off. Reacher’s mysterious skills as an excellent stunt driver seen in the first film (in the admittedly brilliant car chase) despite never professing these skills in the books have even disappeared; in Never Go Back Reacher spends more time in the passenger seat. Smulders is also great here, as Major Turner she rivals Reacher himself. It’s refreshing to see a strong female presence in an action movie and Smulders is perfect for it. The books have had strong female characters throughout the series so it’s nice to see here. The damsel in distress here is the much more realistic choice of Reacher’s (possible) daughter, played by Danika Yarosh. She does some stupid things in the film (she reveals there position to the killers following them at least twice) but like Major Turner she defies traditional characterisation too, being an invaluable member of the team on multiple occasions.
The bottom line: Never Go Back doesn’t have as gripping a mystery at the centre of it like it’s predecessor had but it’s still a very enjoyable action thriller. The relationship between the 3 leads really makes the film and their temporary nuclear family is right at the heart of it. The film is lacking the stand out car chase the first one had but apart from that the action is frequently great, and is refreshingly old school. And that’s how you should approach it; go into Jack Reacher: Never Go Back expecting a B movie throwback and come out pleasantly surprised.