Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is the second adaptation of Lee Child’s novels, once again starring Tom Cruise as the title character, an ex-major who roams the United States, surviving on odd jobs and helping out anyone who comes across his path. This time around, he finds himself pairing up with Major Susan Turner, played by Cobie Smulders, who has often talked to him on the phone during his travels, but has never met him in person. Upon hearing Turner has been arrested for the murder of two soldiers in Afghanistan, Reacher immediately senses that something fishy is going on, and makes it his mission to break her out of prison. Once they’re on the run, they both realise that she has been detained because she was on the verge of uncovering a conspiracy that involved certain key members of the military elite helping to siphon off weapons to the Middle East. At the heart of the conspiracy is the Hunter, played by Nick Heusinger, an enforcer who makes it his mission to track down Reacher, Turner, and Samantha Dutton, played by Danika Yarosh, a teenage girl who makes contact with Reacher after being informed that he may be her biological father.
As in the first film, the main running joke is that Cruise is about three feet too short to play Reacher, whose height is constantly commented upon in Child’s novels. Yet Cruise makes up for it with his charisma, imbuing all of Reacher’s actions and decisions with a comic sense of improbability that prevents the franchise ever growing too self-important or too glum (“Who the hell are you?” “The guy you didn’t count on.”) In recent years, action films have tended to become quite suspicious of charisma, either presenting humorless characters who have been flattened of charisma, or characters who are forced to raise their charisma to a near-parodic level in order to survive (or both at once, as occurs in the rapport between Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney in A Good Day to Die Hard). Within that context, Cruise’s charisma makes Never Go Back seem quite calm, centred and cathartic, since he never agonises about whether or not he can be plausibly charismatic, but never arrogates so much importance to his charisma, and to charisma in general, that the waning of it is a subject for pathos either. Instead, this second Jack Reacher film simply presents charismatic machismo surviving in the modern world, set against the quotidian quietness that is so often debilitating to contemporary Hollywood – the quietness of the space left by an audience that have moved elsewhere – but still managing to carve out a home for itself despite that.
In other words, Never Go Back firmly situates itself in the present tense, in a denuded American landscape that other action films often treat as a form of homelessness, only to find a new kind of homeliness, and a new conception of homeland, even when the events around Reacher signal a new kind of United States. Rather than mourning the loss of homeland, or trying to reinstate homeland, Reacher simply accepts a more modest, low key and understated conception of homeland. It is this modesty that defines the franchise, and that gives it such a wry sense of humour, pairing older action cues with modern technology in quite an innovative and insightful way. Specifically, while Reacher might be out on the frontline, and always defined by his distance from the official military establishment, there’s not the same anxiety about differentiating work in the film from work in the office, as so often occurs in the Bourne films, and in later action films modelled on the Bourne films. Although Reacher may be ex-military, he doesn’t slavishly define himself against the military, just as he – and the film – doesn’t agnoise too much about finding a space outside the system, as occurs in so many post-Bourne action films. Instead, there’s a prescience that the American establishment has waned so dramatically since the outlook of the classic action film that it doesn’t really work as either a point of consensus or a point of departure.
To that end, Never Go Back adopts a more pragmatic and shorthand approach to the American condition, conceding from the outset that everyone is a part of the system, but also accepting the banality of this fact from the outset as well, effectively displacing any lugubrious lessons about critical distance, or the impossibility of critical distance. While Reacher might be part military, but also partly aligned against the military, his individual charisma and convictions tend to be enough to supersede that sense of partial complicity, meaning that the establishment itself ceases to be a point of reference to be affirmed or superseded. Among other things, that allows Edward Zwick to distinguish, quite matter-of-factly, between good Americans and bad Americans, in ways that are increasingly unavailable within the lexicon of action cinema. More specifically, while recent action films often fixate on the murkiness of being an American citizen, and the morbid sense that there are (possibly) no truly good Americans anymore, this hand-wringing often serves a fairly conservative purpose – to insist that there are no truly bad Americans anymore, and to do away with the idea of the bad American as a discrete figure. By contrast, Never Go Back suggests, in quite a wryly pragmatic way, that even amidst the most paranoid and conspiracy-driven narrative, it’s still pretty simple to differentiate good Americans from bad.
What ensues is an unusual ethical register, in which the moral conviction of the 80s action film is combined with a studied scepticism about the moral register of more recent action films, which tend to moralise by refusing to allow the audience to condemn American agency without understanding or appreciating the sheer complexity of data underpinning any one American action. Between those two poles, a more provisional, practical and open-minded approach to American goodness emerges that sees most of Never Go Back playing out on the road, or in transit, as if in a line of flight from the action film as it now stands, but also determined not to become bogged down in the past either. While the film may technically be an action film, Zwick draws on the itinerant atmosphere of 80s genre films more generally, as well as presenting the road film as a kind of consummation of the idea of genre itself, which became most extravagantly formalized and deconstructed during the 80s. Even when the characters aren’t on the run, their movement around Washington DC, where the action begins, plays like a miniature road film, as Zwick imbues the city with a momentum and a buoyancy that’s totally absent from the static monumentalism of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is where DC tends to be most visible in Hollywood today.
More generally, even the most transitory spaces in the film feel lived-in, as Zwick reinvests roadside America with a real romanticism and sense of utopian promise, framing even the dingiest of motels and diners as part of a line of flight that has the potential to provide a genuine alternative to the corruption that stagnates in cities, even or especially if that potential can only be glimpsed in movement. That interplay between homeliness and homelessness is bound up in Reacher’s own itinerant lifestyle – he’s a drifter first and everything else second – since if nowhere is home, than everywhere is home as well. Indeed, the only reason that Reacher seeks out to exonerate Turner in the first place is that the tenor of their conversations tend to sync up with the rhythm of the road in a poetic and pregnant way, always seeming to take place against his journeys at their most elastic, improvisational and emergent. While we never find out too much about his backstory with Turner, you sense that their conversations have come to stand in for this elastic quality of the road, meaning that restoring her to office means restoring the elasticity of the road for himself, an equation that means that they are destined to part again once the film is over.
Before they part, however, Zwick offers a remarkably resilient account of the camera in the face of what might be termed post-cinematic space – the new anonymity of an American urban landscape in which cinema is no longer the main source of mass media, and which is largely indifference to the gaze that cinema and the cinematic audience cast over it. Unlike so many films that face this brand of space head on, Never Go Back doesn’t treat it as an antagonist to be tamed, or as a sublime spectacle to shock and awe the viewer, but simply as a fact of life, one that undoubtedly forces the charisma of the film and Reacher himself into a more modest pathway, but also leaves them room to survive and even flourish, so long as they revise their expectations. In fact, by refusing to grant this new kind of space too much power, Zwick does the apparently impossible, and domesticates it, with the result that the three main characters – Reacher, Turner and Samantha – are often drawn into a familial proximity almost inadvertently, often despite themselves, and always accompanied by the same warmly synthesised motif in Henry Jackman’s score. As a result, much of Never Go Back recovers the feel-good atmosphere that started to drain out of Hollywood cinema by the early 00s, whether it’s Samantha confessing that she has never flown before meeting them, Samantha returning to their safe house after spending all night on the town, or Samantha watching Halloween movies while Reacher and Thomas go out to recon at night.
Throughout all these scenes, Zwick demonstrates an acute sense of blocking and body language, especially when it comes to orchestrating scenes with several people in the frame at once, building an intensely embodied sense of space that eventually cuts across the anonymous and transitory quality of so many of the environments where the action unfolds. Beyond a certain point, this transcends the narrative, and instead taps into an inherent domesticity to the cinematic image itself, much as the three characters continually find their situation domesticated despite themselves. While this may well be a fugitive narrative, Reacher is such a drifter that the road is already domesticated, just as his assurance in moving from place to place means that their flight often feels like a family holiday as much as a way of keeping themselves alive. Rather than see the anonymity of post-cinematic space as a reproach, challenge or criticism of his camera, Zwick instead realises that the domesticity of the camera is only enhanced in a world where so much is now indifferent to the camera. By embracing his camera as a dated device, he therefore manages to restore an older kind of feel-good affect without it feeling dated, if only because this feel-good vibe now gets so much of its feeling from being situated in a world where that feeling has waned.
Key to that domesticity, of course, is Reacher and Cruise’s awareness of their own limitations as action protagonists. Once again, Cruise’s diminutive stature works wonders here, since it means that he’s never quite comfortable or certain of his physical dominance. In fact,his recourse to physical action often means that he’s just as outdated as the camera itself, as in the traditional chase sequence that concludes the film, taking us through a series of period architectural styles that seem like extensions of Reacher’s body as much as spaces on their own terms. As with so much of his recent action work, Cruise excels at being tired, or at least momentarily overwhelmed or exhausted, without ever quite letting his exhaustion disrupt the action momentum, or become a source of self-pity or spectacle in itself. By contrast, his main antagonist, the Hunter, plays as a contemporary action hero, an alpha male who has incorporated the seamless efficiency of digital technology to build a hyper-masculine skill set that processes data as efficiently as it disposes of bodies. The only way to contend with this kind of body, Reacher realises, is to refuse to elevate it as either an antagonist or aspiration, and to instead elude it with the elastic and drifting ambience of the the film as a whole, which Zwick also pits against the Hunter as the conclusion draws near.
As a result, there is no single climactic showdown between Reacher and the Hunter – just a series of elliptical encounters that gradually reinstate the logic and rhythm of the road so emphatically that the very idea of a standoff, so powerful and precious to the Hunter, starts to lose its meaning. By the end, the point of the film isn’t so much Reacher’s victory in this particular story, as the resilience with which he recovers the road as a metaphor for American culture, full of chance meetings and serendipitous moments that turn out to be his own version of nation-building and democratic discourse. When he’s told that “people like him can never go back to the world,” and asked if he misses the world, Reacher responds “not a bit,” but the impression isn’t of a character who has sacrificed the world, or has somehow traversed the world. Instead, the world of America, in this franchise, can only be understood as a process, as a situation that has to be negotiated from day to day. While that produces moments of precarity, the sense of forward movement, and momentum of the road, is strong enough – because the film and Reacher are modest enough about their ambitions – to provide a buoyancy as well. And that buoyancy, modest as it is moving, is the final note of Never Go Back, which ends with Reacher once again hitching a ride, enhanced by the people he’s met on the road, just as they’ve been enhanced by him, but still open to the collective future, in one of the cruisiest performances that Cruise has enjoyed in years, so cruisey that it doesn’t even matter, ultimately, that the franchise has been halted here.