Timing is off on a dull ‘Jack Reacher’

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The movies don’t always have the best timing. Sometimes they arrive when you need them least. The opening sequence of “Jack Reacher” asks us to watch through a sniper’s crosshairs as people stroll past. It then asks us to watch them die and replays the sequence later for purposes of forensics. If you’re aware of last week’s events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it is uncomfortable to sit and witness, say, a rifle target a woman holding a little girl from the assassin’s point of view.

The movie is asking us to escape from fresh horror into this stale, manufactured variety. It’s utterly innocent of what it evokes and very much the product of a culture in which such massacres take place.

Fortunately, the captain of all this staleness (that opening sequence really is just like every other such sequence the movies and TV have given us) is Tom Cruise. He’s the Jack Reacher of the title, a former supersoldier who lusts only for justice. He’s a drifter. He’s removed himself from the grid. He’ll resurface when summoned. So when the man accused of being the sniper is taken into custody, his only instruction to the Pittsburgh prosecutors (Richard Jenkins and David Oyelowo) are: “Get Jack Reacher.” And so arrives this neat-looking, compact man in jeans and a variation on a brown leather bomber jacket, and he is ready to crack the case: Who framed the suspect?

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It took a single scene to realize that I didn’t care. “Jack Reacher” is based on the remorseless loner who has appeared in 17 novels written by Lee Child, specifically 2005’s “One Shot.” He’s a man of few words. But Christopher McQuarrie, the writer of “The Usual Suspects,” wrote the script and directed the movie, and he makes Reacher the quippiest man in the room.

With little zip or foreboding or filmmaking, McQuarrie has rigged the movie for Cruise. No one is as smart or strong or brilliant at piecing together the details of a case as Reacher. Everyone around him is exposed as incompetent or shortsighted or stupid or Werner Herzog, who brings just the right touch of sadistic evil to his empty villain’s role.

Cruise has been paired with the English actress Rosemund Pike, playing the defense attorney who more or less hires Reacher to do her investigating. Pike has been wonderful in everything from “Die Another Day” to “Pride & Prejudice” and “An Education.” I don’t know whether it is the hassle of having to do an impossible regional accent or the stress of working with a star who thinks his breasts are nicer than hers, but next to Cruise she’s comatose. He has better chemistry with Robert Duvall, who plays the crusty owner of a gun shop.

There’s no tension anywhere in this movie. An atrocity has been committed, and the most interesting treatment of that event is a loving sequence that attempts to explain who the victims were. But Reacher won’t even allow the facts presented in that sequence to stand. He’s the moral equivalent of a tennis father: The truth is never true enough for him. This is the kind of walk-on-water superiority that Julia Roberts has build a career on. The appeal of Cruise is that he’s always pulling himself out of quicksand. All he does here is throw people in. He’s got the mystery all wrong for a part like this. For instance, how far off the grid could a man with that skin and military haircut and those jeans fall? Who’s his colorist? Who’s his dentist? Who’s his personal trainer?

At 50, Cruise has never looked more like Tom Cruise. In that jacket and with that hair, it might as well be 1986. This movie is the height of by-the-book dullness. But his commitment to stopping terror, punishing mass murderers, and righting wrongs remains admirable, crazy, and vain. He’s so committed to saving us from atrocity and mediocrity that he doesn’t even think to save himself.