If he hadn't already used that title for another movie, Tom Cruise could have easily called 'Jack Reacher' 'The Last Samurai.' There's a bit of Toshiro Mifune's Sanjuro in this Reacher guy: the masterless warrior who strides into a corrupt town, answers to no one, rights a few wrongs, busts a few heads, and wanders away to find his next challenge. He has no possessions; he owns exactly two shirts and one jacket. All he carries with him is a roll of $100 bills, a passport, a toothbrush, and his inflexible moral code. He would have fit right in back in feudal Japan. Or the Old West, for that matter. He'd make a hell of a Man With No Name.

But he has a name, and it's Jack Reacher, which sounds kind of silly, especially when barked by stuffy white guys in sentences like "Who the hell is Jack Reacher?!?" But that's his name, given to him by bestselling novelist Lee Child, who's written 17 Reacher novels. 'Jack Reacher' is based on the ninth book in the series, originally titled 'One Shot,' but it provides a suitable introduction to the character for Reacher neophytes like myself. And it's a solid if unspectacular crime thriller, with an effectively macho Cruise performance, a decent mystery, and some well-shot action scenes.

It also begins with a scene of gun violence that some audiences might find disturbing in light of the recent events in Newtown, Connecticut. A sniper perches himself in a parking garage across the river from Pittsburgh's PNC Park, coldly peers at the passersby through his scope, and then begins picking them off, seemingly at random. The evidence at the scene all points to a man named James Barr (Joseph Sikora), Iraq veteran, loner, and fanatical sniper. When presented with what amounts to an open and shut case by District Attorney Rodin (Richard Jenkins) and Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo), Barr says nothing and writes three words on a piece of paper: "Get Jack Reacher."

Rodin and Emerson have no clue who that is, and by the time they figure it out Reacher -- former military police detective turned homeless drifter -- has already found them. Turns out, he has a particular interest in the Barr case. He agrees to accept a temporary position as an investigator for Barr's defense lawyer, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike) in order to see the situation through to the end. And yes, before you ask: Helen is the D.A.'s daughter, and yes, that also means they're working against each other on the same case. Why? Because, movies (and, I suppose, Lee Child novels).

The sniper killing is not nearly as simple as it first appears (also because, movies) which gives Reacher an opportunity to show off his talents as a detective: he has a Sherlock Holmes-style knack for deductive reasoning, a photographic memory for numbers, and he can hold his own in a fight even when he's outnumbered five to one (or three to one as he sees it; he knows once things get ugly two guys will run away in terror). Reacher is also Tom Cruise, which means he has a weirdly muscular body for a 50-year-old hobo and he runs really fast when the situation calls for it.

Cruise has come a long way from his days as a beacon of idealistic virtue in films like 'Top Gun,' 'Days of Thunder,' and 'The Firm.' This is his second film of the year, after 'Rock of Ages,' in which he plays a sort of fallen angel in search of redemption. Reacher is an okay guy but by his own admission he's not a hero. And one point he threatens to beat a man to death and drink his blood from a boot -- and (spoiler alert!) he eventually makes good on at least half of that promise. Cruise isn't exactly the most physically imposing screen presence, and he still has those boyish good looks, but he's a good enough -- and intense enough -- actor to pull off Reacher's dark side.

Although they don't get much screen time together, Cruise's main antagonist in 'Jack Reacher' is film director Werner Herzog, taking a rare acting role as "The Zec," a former Siberian prisoner hardened by his sad life into a sadistic, merciless killer. Film nerds might get a chuckle out of seeing the 'Grizzly Man' filmmaker as a mainstream Hollywood movie villain, complete with one clouded eye and missing fingers (which he apparently chewed off!). Casual moviegoers will simply accept him, and maybe even wonder why they've never seen this fabulous character actor in anything before. He fits in perfectly. He should play the bad guy in every Tom Cruise movie from now on.

Ironically, given his title, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie doesn't strive for anything too ambitious with 'Jack Reacher.' He offers no larger themes to grasp or political allegories to wrestle with. The cast is proficient, the mood is ominous, the dialogue is thick with tough-guy-isms. Herzog's heavy is suitably crazy and the final showdown between Reacher and the bad guys seems like a reasonable facsimile of what a guy with his tactical genius might do in a situation like that. If you're looking for something lean and unpretentious, you should be pretty satisfied.


'Jack Reacher' opens in theaters on December 21.

Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’

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