To anyone who knows the character of Jack Reacher from the two Tom Cruise movie vehicles bearing his name, the protagonist of the Amazon streaming series “Reacher” may appear alarmingly reshaped. Some fans of the long-running Jack Reacher book series, however, will breathe a sigh of relief. In Alan Ritchson’s version of the character, they will find someone closer to how author Lee Child described him: a mountain of a man with fearsome fists whose enemies must be heavily armed to stand any kind of a chance against him. Even then, they’d have to fire off a shot before he punches away their chance. It’s no spoiler to say that this rarely happens over the course of “Reacher.”
As with his “Mission: Impossible” movies, Cruise (who stands nearly a full foot shorter than Reacher’s 6-foot-5 bearing in the books) conveyed Reacher’s strength through dogged determination rather than pure, brute physical force — though there was some of that too. In “Reacher,” the character’s powers of both detection and physical strength are amped up to superheroic levels; this former military policeman is essentially Sherlock Hulk.
Indeed, Jack Reacher could easily fit into an old-school network-TV model like the old “Incredible Hulk” series, with a do-gooding outcast traveling from one self-contained adventure to another. “Reacher” opens with the character rolling into fictional Margrave, Georgia, on a Greyhound and a whim, with literally no baggage and vague plans to check out the birthplace of an old bluesman whose music he enjoys. More than once, he self-identifies as a hobo (not, he emphasizes, a vagrant).
But his sojourn in Margrave lasts all eight episodes of “Reacher,” because this is a modern streaming series, where mysteries must take full seasons to develop, even if they aren’t particularly rich in “Mare of Easttown”-level portraiture. At least this one, adapted from Childs’ first Reacher novel “Killing Floor,” has bestseller instincts to provide a strong hook: When Reacher stops at a diner for some pie, he’s immediately arrested for murder in a town he’s never visited.
After a detour through the prison system, an unexpected personal connection draws him deeper into the mystery of why corpses keep piling up in Margrave. (Fearful locals naturally look upon this unfamiliar face with suspicion.) Eventually, a likable investigation trio forms, as Reacher teams with Finlay (Malcolm Goodwin), the local police department’s buttoned-up head detective; and Roscoe (Willa Fitzgerald), another Margrave cop. Fitzgerald in particular gives a performance that goes a long way toward humanizing Reacher, even as the writing of her character indulges feisty-young-love-interest clichés.
Ritchson needs all the help he can get. He certainly seems like an appropriate choice to embody this barely mortal version of Reacher; he has superhero experience as the “Smallville” version of Aquaman, and, more recently, Hawk on the DC series “Titans.” Yet maybe the movies’ on-paper miscasting of Cruise had something going for it. Cruise may not have been a physical match for the Reacher’s on-page specs, but in an action-thriller, it’s helpful to hire an actor who can convincing win or lose a fight. Over the course of eight episodes, Ritchson’s Reacher barely has a moment where the outcome of any given face-off is remotely in doubt. Throughout, Ritchson moves with the rigid gait of an action figure, and at times seems to be aiming for about that level of personality. As it turns out, Cruise’s later-period metamorphosis from cocky prodigy to monkish middle-ager went a long way toward leavening aspects of a character who, absent a naturally charismatic movie star playing him, comes across more than a little robotic — a T-800 posing as a rugged, exacting moralist.
There are some running attempts to give the characters affectionate little details. The show is amusingly attuned to Reacher’s food preferences; anyone frustrated by endless film and TV scenes where characters sit down to eat, only to leave their food at the table as they rush away to address some urgent matter should be satisfied by how often Reacher takes a to-go bag (and how his desire for pie is repeatedly thwarted).
Even Reacher’s appetites, though, are part of his characterization as an almost mythical, Paul Bunyan-esque figure. Accordingly, he spends much of the season performing feats of strength, from utilitarian (opening a beer bottle with his bare hands) to nearly fantastical (bursting free from zip-ties at will). His shows of strength become as predictable as the entertaining yet not especially twisty plot; when you cast Bruce McGill as an oily mayor, it’s hard to spring major surprises on the audience.
That familiarity is probably what some fans are craving from this TV comfort food. “Reacher” provides it by augmenting network-TV briskness with streaming-ready profanity, nudity and blood spatter — the latter a tacit acknowledgement that its audience craves brutality, so long as we can pretend it’s being righteously meted out. This is nothing new or even especially troubling, but as watchably enjoyable as “Reacher” can be, the hero’s moral construction becomes awfully transparent. Reacher’s code combining military precision with one-man-army execution never feels especially lived-in. Like this show, it’s been created to break bones and crack skulls.