A Tale of Two Reachers: In Defense of Tom Cruise's Jack Reacher
Reacher, to nobody's surprise, is one of the most popular TV shows in the world now, helping Amazon Studio's bottom line. Over 100 million readers have been gagging to see a faithful adaptation of the character on screen, possibly more than just the books. It's safe to say Alan Ritchson nails it as the platonic ideal of Lee Child's Jack Reacher for the screen. Fans all agreed that he was a vast improvement over Tom Cruise in the two movies from years before.
To fans, Ritchson is the right size for Reacher, a mountain that walks like a man with the deductive mind of Sherlock Holmes. As a bonus, Ritchson also has the comedy chops to convey the dry, sly humour that lurks under the character's taciturn exterior. But the arrival of the new show also has fans and pundits decrying Cruise's portrayal of Reacher in the 2012 movie Jack Reacher. Cruise wasn't big enough, they said. Reacher's main characteristic was that he was huge, so he naturally exuded threat and menace whenever he walked into a room just by his size alone. Cruise was an average-sized man, so he wasn't feared. Cruise also wasn't cool the way fans felt he was, and Ritchson conveyed that cool, probably because Ritchson thought Reacher was cool and played him as such.
That said, Cruise was perfectly fine. True, he didn't convey that sense of threat that Reacher's sheer size carried, but it made him a bit more interesting, if more ordinary. It made him look like more of an underdog, which the character never is in the books. Tom Cruise's movie persona is that of a man who works very, very hard to be very good at what he does, the best at what he does. That quality works for his portrayal of Jack Reacher. Cruise's Reacher looks like his skills and experience were all earned through hard work. Maybe the fans didn't see Jack Reacher in Cruise. They just saw a guy who was a vigilante.
The scenes in the show and the movies where Reacher explains how he thinks and how he made his deductions feel identical, whether he's played by Cruise or Ritchson. That's the screenwriting problem of explaining how Reacher thinks, and they haven't solved it, so they have to resort to exposition. Both Ritchson and Cruise's Reacher work best when he's quiet, a threat ready to be unleashed when someone is stupid enough to provoke him. For normal-sized men to threaten Ritchson's – and the book's – Reacher makes them look stupid, bordering on suicidal. You can at least believe a bunch of guys think they can take down Cruise. Cruise's signature intensity works well for this Reacher. When he starts to fight, he is as dangerous as a Large Man who's Built like a Fridge, but in a different way. He doesn't have the laidback menace that fans expect in the character. He uses his intensity and rage to convey menace.
Jack Reacher is an underrated movie and a milestone in many ways. It proved that a screen adaptation of the books can work, even without an accurately large Reacher. It was reasonably faithful to One Shot, the 2005 novel it adapted, and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie wrote and directed with enough sense of invention and ingenuity that it secured his future collaborations with Cruise as the writer-director of the more recent Mission: Impossible movies. It also featured Werner Herzog as the bad guy and launched his acting career playing villains in genre movies, leading to his turn in The Mandalorian. The less said about the mediocre 2nd movie Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, the better. That movie was by a different writer-director team and softened Reacher by changing the book's story way too much. The same mistake was made in the Amazon TV show when it softened him in the later episodes.
So call Tom Cruise "The Reacher of Earth 2". The multiverse is in now, don't you know? You can have your Platonic ideal of the character in "Ritcher" and you can also have Tom Cruise. You can have it all!
Reacher is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
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