As played by Tom Cruise, the big-screen version of Jack Reacher (the tough-guy hero of a series of novels by Lee Child) is every 15-year-old boy’s ideal: He’s always right, he’s got an endless supply of argument-ending zingers, and he can kick everyone’s ass. It’s interesting, then, that “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” pairs the character with a 15-year-old girl who, whether or not she turns out to be Reacher’s daughter, is the man’s match when it comes to thinking outside of the box and annoying authority figures.
The girl is Samantha (Danika Yarosh, “Heroes Reborn”), and she feels mostly wedged into the story mainly to be a third-act hostage, but more on her later. We begin with Reacher busting up a human trafficking ring and calling in to the current occupant of his old job at the military police, Major Susan Turner (Colbie Smulders). Their conversations are sprightly, and maybe a little flirty, and the major invites him to dinner next time he’s in D.C.
By the time ramblin’ Jack arrives in our nation’s capital, Susan has been arrested for espionage following the death of two of her sergeants in Afghanistan under mysterious circumstances. She has expressly forbidden Reacher from getting involved, but he can’t help sticking his nose in, and soon Susan’s attorney has been murdered and both Reacher and the major are on the run from the military and trying to crack a conspiracy involving a shady contractor.
And since Samantha’s mother brought a paternity suit against Reacher, the bad guys are after the girl as well, which sends the three of them on the road to follow the clues and punch the villains and shoot back and forth at each other. “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is as featureless and generic as its title, but between Cruise’s star quality and the ability of director Edward Zwick to stage coherent action sequences, the results are a palatable enough popcorn movie.
Cruise, three decades after his big breakout in “Top Gun,” remains the master of his domain, even though he’s letting his age show in subtle ways, from the lines that have started appearing on his face to his shirtless torso, which reveals him to be an exceedingly fit human being but not the carved, chiseled Greek god which so many contemporary leading men resemble. It also helps that he’s got great chemistry with Smulders, whose Major Turner is every bit Reacher’s equal in the murder-and-mayhem department. When you see her dispatch a foe with a garden hose, you realize she’s Cruise’s most formidable on-screen top since Kelly McGillis.
It’s too bad that no one thought to give this pair of heroes an equally interesting villain; there are no bad guys here at the level of the prior film’s Jai Courtney, much less the scene-stealing Werner Herzog. Instead, we get a bunch of generic white guys in uniform, and a grade-A assassin known only as The Hunter (Patrick Heusinger, “Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce”), whose most notable feature are his distractingly white teeth. And unless you’re Richard Kiel playing “Jaws” in the 007 movies, your dental hardware really shouldn’t be the most interesting asset your character has to offer.
“Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” – incidentally, if Reacher didn’t go back, Major Turner would be in jail, plus there’d be no movie – is the kind of film you watch with your dad. On an airplane. Or when “Keeping Up with the Joneses” is the only other movie you haven’t seen at the multiplex. It’s nothing special, but it’s nothing awful, either.