An efficient mesh of a 90’s John Grisham-esque thriller procedural with flashes of a 70’s/80’s vigilante movie, Chris McQuarrie’s adaptation of Lee Child’s “One Shot” proves a surprise. Strangely marketed on its few action beats, the film itself is more of a moody pulp thriller – a confident and well-paced crowd pleaser that showcases some welcome smarts. There’s a cocky, but not arrogant, attitude here which knows how to have fun and can reign it in when appropriate.
Much of the issues people will have with this is the baggage they bring with them. In the books a key trait of the Reacher character is his physicality – he’s a 6’5″ blond muscle giant. Tom Cruise, even with all his dedication, does NOT resemble that look in any way. As someone who hasn’t read the novels, it’s not an issue for me as I don’t have a picture of Reacher in my head. The result of which is I went with the character, one that has far more of a distinct personality than Cruise’s other onscreen action persona Ethan Hunt.
In fact the film goes out of its way to separate itself from other action films of the ilk. Aside from some cell phone usage, the events shown could have easily taken place in the 80’s or 90’s. Reacher is an ex-military cop, a man who lives entirely off the grid and in the present. He seems to have only one outfit and no agenda, just riding into town and taking care of business the old fashioned way. There’s a classic western sensibility on offer, but without that genre’s often languid pacing or overly broad sensibility.
The film starts off with an excellent 8-10 minute opening – a sniper opens fire on a public square, picking off five seemingly random people. The subsequent police investigation picks up the wrong guy, a guy who asks for Reacher’s help. These scenes are done without dialogue of any kind, and the result delivers both palpable tension and a feeling that McQuarrie is steering this ship with a sense of cool confidence.
We don’t lose that feeling as his signature snappy dialogue comes into play. The story is familiar, resembling many a familiar cheap airport novel, but it is filled with moments that make proceedings feel fresh. From a sequence exploring the backstories of the victims and then viewing them again from a different perspective, to the moments of action which all have a raw and practical sensibility.
These include a really impressive car chase that’s much more about timing and skilled driving than it is about incidental damage and flashy cars. Same with the fights which are considerably more believable and enjoyable than anything in the likes of “The Raid” because they are not overly choreographed and over indulgent violent ballets. Reacher’s fighting is all about efficiency and incapacity – quick, devastating blows to the soft bits.
Performances are solid across the board, Cruise bringing his usual committed work and seemingly relishing getting to play a bit of a prick here. At times his delivery of the dark witticisms are a bit out of his range, but most of the time they give him back a welcome edge. Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins and David Oyelowo lend solid support with Robert Duvall in particular having a fun side role as a gun shop owner.
The villains of the piece are a surprise. On the one hand is young Aussie hunk Jai Courtney as the enforcer Charlie. Courtney has definite presence and a distinct look which gives his character an edge. He has little dialogue, but in his few scenes he shows good promise. Then there’s the pure fun of seeing veteran German filmmaker Werner Herzog as an evil and relatively anonymous villain. Herzog spends most of his time talking about the fingers he chewed off to survive in a Siberian gulag, and has great fun milking the value out of each and every word he has to say.
Judged in terms of plausibility you’re going to find so many holes you won’t know where to begin. It’s all preposterous, character motivations here are often very hazy. For all its dramatic beats and action tone, there’s also a surprising amount of humor as well from retorts with bite, to a near slapstick fight in a bathtub.
Even the hokier moments though are pulled off with polish, be it Caleb Deschanel efficiently composed photography to Stephen M. Rickert’s slick but restrained editing. Often exciting even if far-fetched, it’s a fun ride with a real economical sensibility. The film’s just the right length, scenes and characters never overstaying their welcome. Well-constructed and easily entertaining, it lays the groundwork for hopefully more Reacher stories hitting the big screen.