Jack Reacher: Tom Cruise Picks the Wrong Week for a Thriller About a Mass Killing

The star's new crime drama gets undermined by the suddenly dour pre-Christmas mood—and by not being a very good movie

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Paramount Pictures

A man drives into a Pittsburgh parking garage, deposits a quarter in the meter and stares across the Allegheny River at pedestrians on the esplanade near the Pirates’ PNC Park. Cruising for targets, the sniper aims his M1A Super Match rifle at “the sweet spot where the medulla meets the spine.” Bang bang bang, bang bang bang. Six shots, five dead — random victims, whose only crime was being in the line of a madman’s fire.

Jack Reacher, the very ordinary new Tom Cruise thriller, may be a minor collateral victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School carnage. Because it begins with this scene of a mass slaughter, shown from the gunman’s point of view, the movie accidentally and automatically evokes obscene images of slain first-grade children. Those images will be in most Americans’ minds for a while, certainly through the early run of the movie, which opens Friday. Popular entertainment, meant to relieve people of real-life cares by leading them into a fictional world, occasionally grazes against some national trauma. That is the case with Jack Reacher. Appropriately, Paramount Pictures postponed the Saturday evening premiere in Pittsburgh, where the movie was filmed, and where Cruise was to receive commendations from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Governor Tom Corbett.

(READ: Michael Crowley on Obama’s Assertion That “These Tragedies Must End”)

In the U.S., mass murders and serial killings have become a serial of their own, a frequently recurring horror movie featuring the same monster: some resourceful lunatic whose atrocity contains no political agenda, only an expression of indiscriminate rage. The mind behind the murders in Jack Reacher is something else; this is not a horror film but an old-fashioned detective story cocooned in violence. We’re not spoiling any plot points (the identity of the sniper is revealed in Reacher’s first scene) to say that a tale like this is designed to give motive to madness, to offer the relatively comforting explanation of a conspiracy among the prominent and powerful. It’s the right genre — just, at this time of bereavement, the wrong moment.

Jack Reacher has two other goals: to provide moviegoers with an incorruptible, infallible savior — the American dream man meant to prevent or avenge American nightmares — and to hand Cruise a second franchise, more modest than his globe-trotting, hyper-expensive Mission: Impossible series.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible 4)

Lee Child’s Reacher novels, 17 by now, portray an ex-Army investigator turned drifter who’s part Travis McGee, part Terminator, and all avenging angel. Along with no fixed abode, he has no car, credit cards, computer or cell phone. He’s like your indigent, itinerant grandpa, a hobo Abe Simpson, except Reacher is six-five, 250 and a master of martial and firearm arts. This taciturn hero — the most frequent sentence in any Child novel is “Reacher said nothing” — shows up at some crime scene, detects, fights, solves and leaves. Though he travels on public bus lines (whose vendors take cash and don’t bother with security patdowns), the books are best consumed on a crosscountry plane trip: prime junk culture, immediately diverting and instantly disposable.

(READ: Andrea Sachs’s Q&A with Lee Child)

The attraction of the movie Jack Reacher, based on One Shot, the ninth volume in the series, is that it aims no higher than the book: the sweet spot where the child’s appetite for heroic fantasy meets the NASCAR dad’s need for vicarious mayhem. Cruise, as star and producer, and Christopher McQuarrie, the screenwriter and director, are going for that B-movie crime vibe — a tough man, a blond, a couple of gnarled city officials and a pack of lumpen goons — with a gritty, rust-belt milieu.

In a month of films overburdened by dreams of Oscar, it’s nice to anticipate a picture that has no other ambition but hard-boiled detective-story entertainment. It’s also disappointing when the film’s modest pleasures are scuttled by more sizable frustrations, and when a little movie with big talent behind it turns out to be suitable only for in-flight viewing.

(You won’t FIND: Jack Reacher on TIME’s Top 10 Best Movies of 2012)

In the sniper shooting, an abundance of clues leads to a loner Iraqi veteran, James Barr (Joseph Sikora), who looks ripe for the death penalty. His one demand to the police, before convicts beat him into a coma, is “Get Jack Reacher.” No one in Pittsburgh knows how to contact Reacher — he leaves only a ghost’s shadow — yet within days he shows up. Reacher’s mission is not to clear the suspect but to ensure his death. Years before, on a Middle East tour of duty, Barr had shot and killed four contractors but been freed on a political technicality; Reacher, the military cop who nailed him, promised Barr that if it happened again he would come back to exact justice.

He tells this to Emerson (David Oyelowo), the detective who gathered the evidence against Barr, to District Attorney Alex Rodin (Richard Jenkins) and to the D.A.’s lawyer daughter Helen (Rosamund Pike), who has taken Barr’s case. Reacher agrees to act as Helen’s investigator, both to validate his opinion of the defendant and because… well, if Barr really were the sniper, there’d be neither book nor movie.

(READ: Corliss’s 1989 Tom Cruise cover story by subscribing to TIME)

Though closer to five-six than to six-five, Cruise adequately fills the Reacher silhouette. The three-decade leading man, who turned 50 this summer, wears his years well. He is still of sturdy physique, which he irrelevantly displays to Pike, and has quick reflexes needed for the three main action sequences. They don’t match his scaling of the 160 stories of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible 4, but they’ll do as a Cruise triathlon.

Here they are: a fight with five guys (“Remember, you asked for this,” he tells the ringleader before beating the sap out of him); a frantic car chase through the City of Bridges (some sharp work by Cruise and his stunt drivers); and the climactic battle at a quarry, where he and a craggy ex-Marine (Robert Duvall) try to take down the movie’s Comrade Big, a wily survivor of Soviet gulags who is known as The Zec (Pantheon director Werner Herzog, sporting an agate marble for his left eye, and fingers gnawed down to the knuckles). A Cruise character that never smiles simply does not give value for money — Reacher would be a snugger fit for some large, glum actor: an Arnold Schwarzenegger or Liam Neeson in his younger days —  but the star is not the problem with Jack Reacher.

(READ: Richard Schickel’s review of the Cruise-McQuarrie film Valkyrie)

The culprit is McQuarrie, whose Oscar-winning script for the 1995 The Usual Suspects stands out in his otherwise so-so résumé like the Burj Khalifa on the flat Arabian Peninsula. Stripping the 496-page novel of three of its five prominent female characters, while retaining a Child plot twist indebted to Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, McQuarrie gets the gist of the story but not the juice.

Many scenes have the airless tone of a first read-through; the car chase (done on foot in the novel) is a needless exercise, sloppily choreographed; Pike and Oyelowo, fine British actors both, seem stranded and coarse of character in the drab mise-en-scène. There’s a moment when Reacher has his back turned as Helen enters a room and can identify her because she was “breathing too sternly.” Pike’s whole performance is like that: naive and anxious.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Christopher McQuarrie’s The Usual Suspects

A strong director might have enlivened two of the starker scenes — Reacher overwhelming two Keystone-klutz thugs in a bathroom, and the fearsome Zec telling a minion he won’t be killed if he’ll just bite off a finger — but McQuarrie hasn’t the skill or daring to make them work. (A kinder inference would be that he was inhibited by Cruise’s insistence on landing a PG-13 rating for the film.)

Some movies, like Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables, fail because of bad direction: big ideas gone wrong. Jack Reacher suffers from a lack of direction, as if McQuarrie had pushed the actors in front of the camera and hoped that the film would miraculously make itself. Maybe he relied too much on the artistry of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff, The Patriot, The Passion of the Christ) and by Joe Kraemer’s thumping score, which, during helicopter shots of the crime scene, explodes like God’s farts over Pittsburgh.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Hooper’s Les Misérables)

We found a few saving performances. Jai Courtney makes an excellent impression, a blend of Javier Bardem and early Jeremy Renner, as Charlie, The Zec’s chief marksman-henchman. Jenkins, as the D.A. in tense conversation with Helen, subtly segues from badgering the witness to playing the protective dad. James Martin Kelly is wonderful in a small role as Rob Farrior, the father of one of the sniper’s victims. A beefy, working-class guy whose paternal tenderness has been stripped raw, Farrior at first seems weakened by grief; but when Helen, Barr’s attorney, visits him, he is stirred to a fury that sends her packing. It lasts only a minute or two, but it’s a beautifully acted scene of a man, made bleary by mourning, who in an eyeblink realizes that a father’s atavistic duty is to lash out at the emissary of his daughter’s killer. Coincidentally, Farrior stands in for those, in Newtown and beyond, rendered numb by tragedy and wondering why the news media, or movies, have to pick so diligently at this fresh wound.

(READ: James Poniewozik on the media’s exploitation of the Sandy Hook children)

There’s also one laugh-out-loud line of dialogue, when Reacher faces down Charlie with the gaudy threat, “I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot,” as if Cruise were briefly channeling his Lestat character in Interview With the Vampire. It’s almost up there with James Caan’s immortal warning — “I can promise you a day of reckoning that you will not live long enough to never forget” — in McQuarrie’s directorial debut, the 2000 The Way of the Gun.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Christopher McQuarrie’s The Way of the Gun)

The blood-from-a-boot line is a keeper, but it doesn’t suit the hero’s brand of tight-lipped heroism. Even when the film is cool, it manages to be wrong. That’s another stroke of bad luck in a movie whose worst misfortune was to stumble into the middle of anguished national debate about the kind of killer Jack Reacher means only as a plot device.