‘Never Go Back:’ Tom Cruise returns in ‘Jack Reacher’ sequel

July 22, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Jack Reacher: Never Go Back' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Most action heroes have secondary roles from hit book series that keep them working between installments of their signature franchise roles.

Harrison Ford supplemented his signature role as Indiana Jones by playing Jack Ryan, the hero of Tom Clancy’s hit action-thriller book series from “Patriot Games” to “Clear and Present Danger.”

Likewise, Tom Cruise’s recurring role as Ethan Hunt in the “Mission: Impossible” series remains his big blockbuster franchise, while appearing in his new consistent secondary part as Jack Reacher.

Perhaps this makes them jacks of all trades, or maybe it makes them money-grab reachers. Either way, it’s usually a lot of fun for avid readers of the books, if a bit empty in the larger arc of movie history.

Lee Child’s bestselling “Jack Reacher” book series will total 21 installments as of Nov. 18, meaning there’s plenty of material for the big screen. While the first film “Jack Reacher” (2012) was based on the ninth book, “One Shot,” the “Never Go Back” sequel is based on the 18th book of the same name.

Here, Reacher (Tom Cruise) is caught in a major U.S. government conspiracy involving black market weapons deals. He goes on the run as a fugitive from justice in an ass-kicking attempt to clear his name, teaming with his military-police replacement Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Making matters worse in his personal life, an ex-prostitute accuses Reacher of skipping child support payments for a supposed long-lost daughter named Samantha Dayton (Danika Yarosh), a claim that Reacher denies.

Don’t worry if you’ve never read the books or missed the first film four years ago. “Never Go Back” ensures that you “never have to go back” to those prologues in order to follow the action here.

This action sequel stands on its own as a modular installment, a high-octane thrill ride with just the right amount of heart, even as it becomes increasingly predictable and gradually more generic.

In other words, you know exactly what you’re going to get.

Previous director Christopher McQuarrie hands the reins to the always capable Ed Zwick (“Glory,” “The Siege,” “Blood Diamond”), who directs hard-hitting hand-to-hand combat where each final blow is punctuated by a snappy piece of dialogue from Zwick’s “Last Samurai” cohort Marshall Herskovitz.

The casting of Cruise and Smulders is a no-brainer. Cruise has experience on the run in “Mission: Impossible” (1995) and “Minority Report” (2002), while Smulders continues to shake her TV sitcom past of “How I Met Your Mother” (2005-2014) as Marvel Agent Maria Hill in “The Avengers” (2012), “The Winter Soldier” (2014), “Age of Ultron” (2015) and TV’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” (2013-2015).

It’s undeniable fun watching these two action stars sprint across town and commandeer vehicles, allowing moviegoers to play “I Spy” with famous landmarks in the background, be it the Washington Monument or Reflecting Pool in D.C. or Cafe Du Monde and Court of Two Sisters in New Orleans.

To the film’s credit, it avoids the romantic trappings of Cruise and Smulders having a tryst in a hotel room. The closest we come is them making some sarcastic remarks before quickly shifting gears back to the matter at hand. On the flip side, to the film’s detriment, the script inserts a “male vs. female” argument over perceived sexism that, while coming from the heart, feels a bit forced as a plot point.

In fact, there are several moments that appear to try too hard. The opening phone-ringing scene, while irresistible in the trailers, borders on self-parody in the lines that Cruise is asked to deliver.

The larger problem with the script – written by Zwick, Herskovitz and Richard Wenk (“Expendables 2”) – is its brazen willingness to tempt our disbelief. We are willing to go along with a certain amount of unrealistic events as part of the action genre, but the way Cruise tricks a TSA officer to board a plane strains plausibility, as does his silent disposal of foes on the plane without anyone hearing.

Such things would be easier to forgive if we were busy trying to outguess the direction of the plot, but it all feels like a foregone conclusion the closer we get to the cliched Big Easy finale at the Halloween parade in New Orleans. Maybe they got the idea from the “Spectre” opening during the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, but it seems like an all-too-convenient backdrop for our climatic battle.

It does the climax no favors that the pair of villains is entirely forgettable compared to the enigmatic screen persona of Werner Herzog from the first “Reacher” go-round. This time, Robert Knepper is the “brains” as General Harkness and Patrick Heusinger is the “brawn” as The Hunter. By the time they get their comeuppance, you might be checking your watch. Ninety minutes would have sufficed.

During the resolution, when young Samantha tells Jack, “I knew all along,” we feel the exact same way because we’ve seen this movie play out before. Reuniting with the action hero’s long-lost child has become a tired sequel trope, most recently with Bruce Willis and his estranged son in “Die Hard 5.”

Still, if you like these sorts of flicks, by all means “get your Tom Cruise on.” You’ll get your money’s worth in popcorn thrills and communal crowd moments to howl at the screen after badass quips. Just don’t expect anything new from this Chinese-American co-production focused on translatable action.

Sorry, Reacher. Ben Affleck’s “The Accountant” is still a better action option in theaters this weekend.

Let’s face it, when you name your sequel “Never Go Back,” you’re just asking for trouble from critics seizing upon the title as a lazy excuse to call the film a dumb sequel. “Never Go Back,” they’ll write. Let’s not get carried away. It’s fine for what it is, serviceable and action-packed. Let’s leave it at that.

This rating is on a four-star scale. See where this film ranks among the year’s best in our Fraley Film Guide.

2-stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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