I just went to see Jack Reacher: Never Go Back not because I’m a fan of the first movie, which I haven’t seen, or of the best-selling Jack Reacher novel series, none of which I’ve read even though there are 20 of them and they’ve collectively sold over 100 million copies worldwide. No, I went to Never Go Back because I was curious to see what a sequel to a domestic flop, international hit looks like. And now here I am starting at a computer screen struggling to begin a proper review of Never Go Back, fighting my increasingly natural instincts to dovetail into a discussion of the business behind the film, reminding myself, “Dude, most people just want to know if it’s a good movie or not.”
Yeah, seriously. That’s all I care about. Is it a good movie?
Well, Tom Cruise runs a lot. I mean A LOT. Even for him. I got winded just from watching Cruise and his co-stars do so many wind sprints. Cruise also kicks some ass, since that’s kind of Jack Reacher’s thing. Well, that and basically being a modern day western hero, drifting from place to place to right some wrongs, forever forbidden to ever achieve peace. He certainly can’t ever embrace domesticity, but if there’s a military arms deal conspiracy underway he’ll be there.
But, come on, there’s so much more to talk about. This movie shouldn’t even exist! Jack Reacher only made $80m domestic off of a $60m budget, one of Cruise’s lowest-grossing action films of the past 25 years (only 2010’s Knight and Day was lower). After Cruise’s, um, let’s call them “Scientology troubles” derailed his career, 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was his major comeback, but he followed that up with three consecutive domestic box office disappointments: 2012’s Jack Reacher, 2013’s Oblivion and 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow. He was saved each time by robust international business from more forgiving foreign audiences. Jack Reacher ultimately managed a $218m worldwide gross, a nice sum for a $60m movie but not exactly true blockbuster territory.
This is the brave new world of Hollywood franchise film-making. There are still unquestioned hits and regrettable bombs, but now thanks to the booming international market there’s an ever-growing middle tier of squeakers, the not-quite-hits, not-quite bombs studios don’t know what to do with. As such, the coming years will bring us several sequels domestic audiences didn’t exactly ask for but international audiences did. These include Pacific Rim 2, Godzilla 2, World War Z 2 and Alien: Covenant (i.e., the Prometheus sequel) as well as Tom Cruise’s own Edge of Tomorrow 2. The first out of the gate was Huntsman: Winter’s War (which bombed), and now we have Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (which had a solid opening weekend).
Huh, that’s cool. I guess. So, is Never Go Back a good movie?
There’s some interesting stuff with Tom Cruise and Cobie Smulders as fugitives (with some slight romantic tension) on the run, chased after by their own corrupt former colleagues, forced to crack a government conspiracy to clear their names. This set-up and character dynamic repeatedly reminded me of Chris Evans and Scarlet Johansson in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, although there the tension isn’t as overtly romantic as it here. Still, just like Winter Soldier there’s an “access restricted files in public location only to then be traced by the bad guys” scene (Apple Store in Winter Soldier, internet cafe in Never Go Back) as well as a “let’s recover while laying low at a seedy motel and take stock of the situation while our shirts are off because, look, muscles” scene as well as a “bad guys slowly circle the good guy who quips at them before epic fight scene” scene. Heck, Jack even has to fight his own supervillain-esque baddie (Patrick Heusinger’s cryptically titled character “The Hunter”) who is his physical equal.
But you know what’s really interesting? Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is the latest entry in the partnership between Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions. The former is, of course, one of Hollywood’s legacy studios which has fallen on such hard times it would be 49% owned by China’s Wanda Cinema right now if not for Sheri Redstone’s recent shrewd boardroom maneuvering at parent company Viacom. The latter is David Ellison’s film production company which has been set up at Paramount since 2010. Ellison, the son of a billionaire computer tech mogul, makes big budget action movies like Mission Impossible and Star Trek while his sister Megan makes awards darlings like Her and American Hustle through her own production company Annapurna Pictures. Recently, David has hit a bit of a rough patch, failing to re-launch the Jack Ryan and Terminator franchises with Shadow Recruit and Genisys, and stumbling pretty heavily with Star Trek Beyond this summer. Paramount and Skydance could both use a win right about now.
Yeah, they really need a good new franchise, but maybe they have that with Jack Reacher. Speaking of which, is Never Go Back a good movie?
Well, let’s talk a little more specifically about the plot. Smulders plays Major Susan Turner, the new head of the Military Police unit Reacher created back in the day before leaving the military altogether. She and Reacher now flirt over the phone regularly enough that he eventually pops by her office to ask her out only to discover she’s been arrested and framed for treason. He saves her life before the bad guys get to her behind bars, and they run for it.
A quarter or maybe halfway into this narrative a third wheel is added in the form of a 15-year-old girl named Samantha (Danika Yorash) who may or may not be the daughter Reacher never knew he had. At that point, Never Go Back begins to feel more like Captain America: Winter Soldier it if had been written by Shane Black in the 90s. Sure enough, just like Black’s beloved tween girl characters in Last Boy Scout and this summer’s The Nice Guys Samantha eventually proves to be wiser than the adults, but you have to sit through a lot of initial eye-rolling and angst to get there as Samantha is initially drawn so broadly she threatens to derail the entire film, feeling less like a well-rounded character and more like a plot obstacle. Once the script sets these three up as a nuclear family and finds plenty of humor in Reacher’s inherent discomfort with the situation Samantha begins to feel more like an asset, and by the end I found their relationship oddly touching. Still, it was a long walk getting there.
But you what’s really interesting? The majority of this film was shot in New Orleans, lending an extra air of authenticity to a climactic chase through a Día de Muertos parade in the French Quarter. This is not entirely unique, though. So many films and TV shows have been filmed in Louisiana over the past decade it became known as Hollywood South. That is until a mid-2015 law put a cap on the state’s generous tax incentive program, once considered the most generous in the nation. Now, the local production houses and film studios which once worked on films like Battleship, Oblivion and Fantastic Four are going out of business and sitting empty after film spending in the state declined by 75% in just 12 months. The work is moving over to Georgia or back to California or up to Canada or possibly even to China, considering Wanda’s recent announcement of a 40% rebate/tax incentive program (i.e., instantly the most generous in the world) to lure Hollywood film/shows to film there. Never Go Back already lists several Chinese companies in its credits. Could a potential Jack Reacher 3 be filmed in China?
I don’t know. Maybe. It kind of doesn’t matter if Jack Reacher 2 isn’t any good. Speaking of which…
I know, I know – is Never Go Back a good movie? It’s not a bad movie. It’s a workmanlike throwback to old conspiracy thrillers and action films where the lead guy isn’t actually a superhuamn but might as well be considering his limitless supply of strength and intellect. It’s the latest in the recent run of Tom Cruise movies in which he is dang near if not outright upstaged by his female co-star, although Smulders’ work in Never Go Back isn’t quite on par with Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow and/or Rebecca Ferguson in Rogue Nation.
The action scenes are appropriately bone-crunching, the bad guys perfectly menacing and the conspiracy effectively twisty, although the connective tissue between the twists is often seriously suspect. You don’t learn much about Reacher from beginning to end, but if you pay attention to Cruise’s purposefully limited facial expression you’ll see the little flashes of “Awwww, he really wants to be with Susan, but he doesn’t know how” or “Awwww, he really hopes Samantha actually is his daughter and cares for her, but he also feels bad for potentially having abandoned her for all thos eyears.” Mostly, though, you’ll see just him beating people up and running around as if his arms were knives cutting through the air, as is the Tom Cruise way.
So, at long last, is Jack Reacher: Never Go Back a good movie?
It’s good enough. This may not have been a sequel we asked for in the States, and who knows what the future holds for film productions in New Orleans or for the financial health of Paramount and Skydance. They can’t be too happy to see Ben Affleck’s similar and much better The Accountant out there competing for the same audience. Oh, The Accountant. Now that’s a good movie.
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is a lesser, more formulaic Captain America: Winter Soldier if it had been written by Shane Black in the 90s.