Sunday, March 09, 2014
Regular readers will be aware of my Werner Herzog obsession. It’s always been in the back of my mind that one day I might be called upon to codify the depth of my abiding love for all things Herzogian. A fixed point now exists from which that measurement can be taken.
Last night I watched ‘Jack Reacher’. Purely because Werner Herzog was in it.
Just to contextualise: ‘Jack Reacher’ is a film starring Tom Cruise, adapted from a novel by Lee Child. Let’s consider the two halves of that statement. I’ve only ever read one Lee Child novel and it was a blandly written thing that consisted of stock characters reacting with violence to contrived situations. 400 pages as a delivery system for a lunk-headed protagonist punching, head-butting and shooting one-dimensional villains. It made Andy McNab look like Dostoyevsky. Hell, it made Duncan Falconer look like Turgenev. The one defining characteristic of Child’s scrap-happy hero Jack Reacher (a surname that veers too close to reach-around for me to take it seriously) is that he’s a big bloke. This brings us to Tom Cruise and here I will simply quote a comment my friend Mark left on Facebook last night when I mentioned my choice of viewing for the evening: “Sorry, but Tom Cruise was completely wrong for the role. Jack Reacher is a very big man not a shortarse like Cruise.”
Which is as accurate a summarising comment as I’ve come across. McQuarrie’s script labours to portray Reacher as enigmatic, elusive and dangerous before the character has even made an appearance. Then Tom Cruise shows up and scowls and reminds us that he’s a bit too short for this kind of role.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that the first ten minutes of the film, before Reacher shows up, are superb. Compressing three different narrative strands – the build-up to a shooting, the sniper making infinitely patient preparations; the shooting itself; the police investigation that swiftly identifies a suspect – into a pacy and tautly edited montage, this opening sequence gave me real hopes for the film. However, it settles into mundanity far too quick and the grace notes that enliven it thereafter are few and far between.
The spiciest of said grace notes is Herzog, playing a sinister eminence grise known as The Zec. His first appearance, emerging from the shadows at a subterranean rendezvous, delivering a sibilant-heavy monologue about the brutal nature of survival, is gonad-shrivellingly scary. If Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson haven’t earmarked him for Blofeld duties on the next Bond outing, they’re missing a trick. He doesn’t get much more screen time until the final act, and a rather flabby mid-section – enlivened only by a decent, old-school car chase – presents us with a succession of bored performances by people from whom we expect better: Richard Jenkins delivers the only bad Richard Jenkins performance I’ve ever seen, Robert Duvall chuckles a lot and gives line readings that suggest he’s having difficult focussing on a teleprompter; and Rosamund Pike’s cleavage plays the most unconvincing lawyer in the history of cinema.
The climactic action scene at last returns Herzog to the stage, and proves that as long as someone has an intensity and a dark charisma, they need do nothing more than sit perfectly still in the unlit corner of a room and still pose an infinitely greater threat that the pumped-up muscle men running around firing off the ordinance outside. And even then, McQuarrie (also directing) keeps cutting away from Herzog to revel in the mano-a-mano nonsense. How nonsensical? Here’s an example: having mown down two antagonists with a submachine gun and got the drop on a (more dangerous) third, Reacher tosses away his weapon and a beatdown ensues .... while two further aggressors are lurking nearby and the life of a hostage is still at risk. The groan that accompanied my face-palm was probably heard miles away.
Despite the juvenility of its source material, ‘Jack Reacher’ could have been a decent movie. Michael Fassbender as Reacher? He has the size and the physicality, not to mention the acting chops to imbue the character with some depth. The rest of the existing cast? Responding to a director who energizes them, why not? And speaking of directors, I can only imagine how batshit crazy wonderful it would have been helmed by Herzog himself and conceived as an action movie companion piece to ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’.