‘Jack Reacher’ delivers swift, hard-boiled action

Amid the big-movie excess of the season, with digital hobbits and potential Oscar nominees and whatever the heck “Les Miz” is jostling around for your holiday-movie attention, there’s something to be said for a good genre picture that does its business and leaves it at that.

In which case, let’s say something for “Jack Reacher,” the new Tom Cruise vehicle. Based on Lee Child’s novel “One Shot,” the film version has been adapted and directed by the talented Christopher McQuarrie, who long ago nabbed an Oscar for his “Usual Suspects” script.

The film opens, in an example of release-date bad timing, with a gunmen opening fire on strangers in public. The killer, whose identity is clear to us, is a sniper, and a good one, and five people die in a few seconds along the riverfront in Pittsburgh.

The police immediately arrest someone, and that man says only this: “Get Jack Reacher.” Seems this Reacher fellow is an ex-Army hotshot who’s now drifting around the highways of America, having figured out that what most people do with their lives is not really the way to go.

Reacher, of course, is Tom Cruise. He arrives in Pittsburgh and quickly makes a bad impression on the cop on the case (David Oyelowo), the district attorney (Richard Jenkins), and the district attorney’s daughter (Rosamund Pike), who also happens to be the court-appointed defense lawyer for the accused man.

For the enthralling middle hour of the movie, Reacher knocks over clues, gets in a couple of bone-twisting fistfights, and proves himself a capable, but not infallible, investigator. You could probably plug in a half-dozen different action stars in the role, but Cruise acquits himself well — despite complaints by fans of the novel series that the character Jack Reacher stands 6 feet 5 inches tall and therefore Cruise should not be anywhere near the role.

McQuarrie manages to find some surprising moments in banter and car chases alike (and he even leads the movie to a climax in a quarry, which I suppose deserves some note). He means the movie to be hard-boiled, but not without a sense of humor, and it scores on both counts.

Rosamund Pike, the English actress who’s done Jane Austen and James Bond (“Pride &Prejudice” and “Die Another Day”), is a missed note here. She doesn’t really click with Cruise (although maybe nobody is supposed to click with Jack Reacher), and her wide-eyed approach to the role seems odd for someone in her position.

Tasty character bits are contributed by Robert Duvall and Werner Herzog, the latter using his ominous voice to eerie effect; when you hear Werner Herzog talking about biting off his own fingers in a Siberian prison camp, somehow you buy it. Jai Courtney, an actor who looks as though he has a stocking stretched over his face even though he doesn’t, is effective as the trigger man.

“Jack Reacher” has a few wobbles, but they’re outweighed by its hard-boiled achievements, not least of which is cinematographer Caleb Deschanel’s ability to create a dense, non-digital look for the action. The movie knows what it’s doing — a bottom line worth applauding.

“Jack Reacher” (3½ stars)

Tom Cruise plays an ex-Army hotshot who looks into the mysterious case of a Pittsburgh sniper, a story drawn from Lee Child’s book “One Shot.” The film, directed by Christopher McQuarrie, has a few wobbles but is generally a good, swift, hard-boiled action picture that manages to find a few surprising moments in banter and car chases alike.

Rating: PG-13, for violence, language

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Galaxy Monroe, Stanwood, Meridian, Sundance, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall.

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