Synopsis: A homicide investigator digs deeper into a case involving a trained military sniper who shot five random victims.
I was half way through reading One Shot when I decided to watch Jack Reacher, mostly because I didn’t realise it was adapted from that particular installment of the Reacher franchise. I was enjoying the book but I figured as I had already paid to rent Reacher and it expired in two days, I would watch it anyway.
The great thing about Lee Child’s series of Jack Reacher books is that what they lack in story they make up for in easy reading. Like so many commercially successful pulp fiction books they are easy to pick up and put down because the stories are not often the most complex narratively. The strength of the writing is often in the intervening periods of contextual exposition, or chapters where characters can have long conversations. Another prime example would be all of the Dan Brown books.
Unfortunately for Jack Reacher, as with The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons before it, this style of writing doesn’t carry over well onto screen.
When you’re adapting a book for the screen, particularly cinema as opposed to TV, it is inevitable that you will have to cut large parts out or at the very least condense it down significantly. Novels give writers huge freedom to describe small details at great length and so often what takes 10 pages or a chapter to describe can be relayed on film in seconds. A lot of the time with books this can mask a fairly flimsy story because a lot of the joy comes in visualising what is being described on the page and filling in the blanks with your own imagination.
I didn’t really think about it until I watched Jack Reacher but the central story of One Shot is not the most interesting. For what it is though that doesn’t really matter in print, because on the page it bubbles along at a quick pace and is filled with enough quips and descriptive passages to make it an enjoyable bedtime read. The books have become somewhat of a phenomenon and made Lee Child one of the most sellable British authors not called J K Rowling or E.L. James. But when transferred to film, where, particularly in the case of a thriller, narrative is key, it fell short of my expectations.
The story is a modern version of so many classic hard boiled detective thrillers of the good old days. Drifter rolls into town, gets caught up in an investigation where all isn’t quite what it seems and inevitably ends up embroiled in some big conspiracy. Tom Cruise is Jack Reacher, the ex-military cop who in this case finds himself helping a young, ambitious lawyer defending James Barr, a man seemingly responsible for sniping 5 innocent people in downtown Pittsburgh.However it slowly becomes apparent that more sinister forces are at work, led by a shadowy figure known as the Zec. Which is where I encountered one of the first problems with the film adaptation of the book. The way the story is written in One Shot it leads you to suspect that someone is framing James Barr, but it is not confirmed until much later. However that mystery is blown out in the first 5 minutes of the film. Without it the remaining twist, the reason for the framing, seems fairly ridiculous. It relies on you buying that someone, even a sociopath, would go to such extremely risky and convoluted efforts to do something that could have been achieved much more simply and quietly. Even if you believe that it’s easier to hide away in the midst of chaos, the pay off at the end was flat and underwhelming.
Tom Cruise also felt like a lazy and poor choice for Reacher. Aside from the well documented issue of 5’7″ Cruise playing 6’5″ Reacher, it never felt like a stretch for Cruise and it felt like he was phoning it in much of the time. Lee Child, whose real name is Jim Grant, makes no bones about the commercial considerations he has when writing his books. He even chose the pseudonym Child because it put him between Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie on the book shelf. And it felt like Cruise’s casting was nothing more than a commercial decision rather than giving it to someone more suited. Personally, I would love to have seen Eric Bana do it. He has the smart alec tongue for the dialogue and the physical stature to match.
There were some positive points though. Rosamund Pike continues the British takeover of Hollywood as Helen Rodin, the young ambitious lawyer. Her natural ease and excellent US accent made up for any lack of chemistry with Cruise. Equally, David Oyelowo, another Brit, continues to steadily carve himself a niche as the go to for quietly sinister characters, building on his role in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. And Richard Jenkins, who is always watchable in everything he does, was great for the moments he was on screen but he was underused.
It was Werner Herzog though who stole every scene he appeared in. There is something about his unique accent and style of delivery that is filled with nihilistic, Nietzschean tones. He is by far the most intriguing and enigmatic thing whenever he is on screen and I wish, wish, wish there would have been more of him and less of his hired goon Charlie played by interchangeable actor Jai Courtney.
There weren’t too many scenes that individually stood out. The opening shots seen through the snipers scope as he picked his targets were well done. It reminded me of the early shots from a quality old Charlton Heston thriller called Two Minute Warning (1976), where a sniper plans a killing spree during a Championship game at an LA football stadium. I’d recommend it if you find it streaming anywhere or it comes up on TV on night. Also, one scene where Cruise gets cornered in a bathroom by two over enthusiastic meatheads intent on pounding his head in, felt like an outtake from The Three Stooges. Somehow though it worked and was one of the most entertaining fight sequences in what were otherwise a series of fairly pedestrian fight scenes.
It was anytime McQuarrie got his characters in a car though that my enjoyment levels immediately went up a couple of notches. A middle eight, prolonged chase sequence through the city streets as Reacher tracks down the men trying to run him out of town, was a clear nod to Bullit. The sound of Reacher’s Chevrolet Chavelle thundering down the alleys of Pittsburgh is a thing of V8 combustion engined beauty. Cruise impressively did all of his own stunt driving, and at one point when the car stalled during a take McQuarrie kept rolling as Cruise tried to get it started again. The results remained in the final cut and it added a sense of genuine urgency to the resulting catch up.
All in all Jack Reacher never quite lived up to it’s potential and suffered the same issues as so many other pulp fiction novels before it, none more than both Dan Brown adaptations. Given it took $80m off a $60m budget I would be surprised if they make a sequel. But never say never.
Conclusion: If you want a Jack Reacher story then read the book and create the resulting movie in your head.
Director: Christopher McQuarrie – I was surprised at first that took on this project because it didn’t seem particularly in keeping with his previous early work of The Usual Suspects and Way of The Gun. Both dark and complex multi layered pieces. Then I looked at his recent work and I was less surprised: Jack The Giant Slayer; The Tourist; and Top Gun 2 on the horizon.
Writers: Christopher McQuarrie (based on the novel One Shot by Lee Child)
Cast: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo, Werner Herzog, Jai Courtney, Robert Duvall
- The teaser trailer debuted on Tom Cruise’s 50th birthday.
- Tom Cruise did all of his own stunt driving.
- Brad Pitt, Hugh Jackman, Vince Vaughn, Jamie Foxx and Will Smith were considered for the role of Jack Reacher before Tom Cruise was cast.