The Jack Reacher of Lee Child’s novels is a massive 6’5” bruiser. The Jack Reacher of cinema is Tom Cruise, who’s only about 5’7”. But there’s something satisfying about this casting. You expect a giant hulk to be able to handle himself in a fight. Cruise’s Reacher is an underdog every time he wanders into an alley and then takes them down three, four, or five dudes at once. Is it plausible that a 54-year-old vagrant could maintain a flawless physique and dominate packs of professional killers even when cornered and heavily outnumbered? Probably not. Is it plausible that a kid who gets bit by a radioactive spider could turn into Spider-Man instead of dying of radiation poisoning? There are things a viewer simply accepts because it is the premise of the movie.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is the second Reacher film, based on the 18th Reacher novel. Cruise returns as the wandering vigilante/detective/do-gooder, who, as the film begins, takes down a dirty small-town sheriff without a single punch. You know the expression “I could beat him with one hand tied behind my back!”? Reacher beats this sheriff with both his hands cuffed behind his back. This guy is good.

Next he’s off to Washington D.C. to meet Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) his replacement as commanding officer of a unit of Military Police. When arrives at Turner’s office for his appointment, though, she’s been imprisoned and charged with treason. Then her lawyer winds up dead! Guess who gets framed for the murder! Then guess who decides to break Turner out of jail! Then guess what happens next! If you guessed “Jack Reacher,” “Jack Reacher,” and “They prove their innocence and beat the bad guys,” congratulations; you have seen a movie before.

It’s not a particularly original concept, but neither is the basic idea of Jack Reacher, who’s a modern version of The Man with No Name or Sanjuro from Yojimbo; the wandering hero who roams the wilderness inserting himself into disputes and then resolving them, with force if necessary. In movies like this, it’s all about the execution and the variations on the formula. Never Go Back succeeds on both counts. Cruise is typically intense with many enjoyable ludicrous fight sequences (the film feature multiple scenes of Tom Cruise leaping off of roofs onto bad guys) and director Edward Zwick, who previously worked with Cruise on The Last Samurai, mixes up the character dynamics by sticking Reacher, the ultimate loner, into a surrogate family situation, when he’s forced to go on the run with Major Turner and a young girl (Danika Yarosh) who might be related to him.

The three-way friction between Reacher and the two women doesn’t yield quite as many sparks as it should, given the amount of screen time Zwick devotes to it, but Smulders makes a strong, physical foil for Cruise. Punching, kicking, and keeping stride with the Most Famous Runner In Movie History, Smulders shows off significant action chops; this is probably the role she was hoping for when she agreed to play Marvel’s master spy Maria Hill. In one notable sequence, she gets to challenge Reacher’s slightly sexist attitudes, and denounce the male-dominated world of the military. She even mentions being pawed at by fellow officers, making this action thriller about a man who threatens to break a man’s legs, arms, and neck, and then does it in that order a weirdly timely commentary on gender politics in 2016.

Although Reacher still projects an aura of invincibility in public, he often limps and groans in private; a small but effective grace note from Cruise and Zwick. At 54, Cruise must be nearing the end of his time as an unstoppable action star, just as Reacher surely can’t keep throwing guys through walls forever. (If he can, though, that would be fine. It’s very fun to watch him do it.)

You will note I have not mentioned any of the film’s villains yet. They’re not Never Go Back’s strongest element. They’re mostly generic and obvious evildoers, none of which come close to matching the slithering charisma of Werner Herzog as “The Zec” in the first Jack Reacher. Robert Knepper plays a defense contractor named General Harkness, who is very clearly evil because he’s played by Robert Knepper. Patrick Heusinger bears the unenviable responsibility of facing Tom Cruise in several hand-to-hand showdowns. This is a bit like a D-League team trying to beat the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors at home. You pretty much know you’re going to lose right from the start, but you try your best and hope for a miracle.

Never Go Back could have used a bit more personality in the bad guy department, and the middle section sags a bit before the inevitable (and satisfying) denouement. But everyone involved seems to understand exactly what kind of movie they’re trying to make, and they deliver on just about every promise made by the title Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Smulders makes a strong addition to the series, and Cruise gives the 1,000 percent he brings to every single role. Looking back at my review of the first Jack Reacher from 2012, I find that my final sentence and rating from that piece still applies: “If you're looking for something lean and unpretentious, you should be pretty satisfied.”


More From ScreenCrush