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'Jack Reacher' review: Take notes, Tyler Perry

*** (out of four)

Before learning about the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., I already was disturbed by a scene of “Jack Reacher” in which a sniper sets up five seemingly random people in his sights before killing them. The world only grows more terrifying. Many will not want to submit themselves to the movie’s opening scene, and I don’t blame them.

For anyone still interested, “Jack Reacher” is more clever than it looks and easy to recommend as one of the few late-2012 releases that is neither seeking awards nor too dumb to tolerate. Not having read the Lee Child book (“One Shot”) on which the Pittsburgh-set “Jack Reacher” is based, I was surprised to find out that Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) is someone’s real name, since it sounds at best like a code name and at worst like electronics equipment. After shooting suspect James Barr (Chicago native Joseph Sikora) requests to see Reacher, who is a mysterious and decorated war veteran, a cop (David Oyelowo) and district attorney (DeKalb, Ill. native Richard Jenkins) discuss how Reacher’s unreachable. He then walks in the room.

It’s one of many snappy moments crafted by writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (who wrote “The Usual Suspects” and “Valkyrie”) as he reteams with Cruise, an action star who may not be 6-feet-5-inches like Child’s character, but knows how to get a laugh when Reacher trades barbs with a young girl at a bar. Onscreen at least, the role’s just right for Cruise, who can be tough but still vulnerable and commanding without going totally bonkers. None of these skills were displayed by Tyler Perry in the abomination that was “Alex Cross.”

Where the villain in “Cross” was ridiculously overplayed by Matthew Fox, the baddie in “Reacher,” shockingly yet effectively played by documentarian Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man”), brims with madness without having to pop eyes out of his socket. (To be fair, Herzog’s character, known only as the Zec, has one glass eye.) Rosamund Pike plays the D.A.’s daughter, who’s assigned to defend James and asks Reacher to help with her investigation.

The movie suffers from too much exposition and commentary about Reacher’s elusiveness (two different people say, “Who the hell is Jack Reacher?”) and by clearly identifying who committed the crime early on. Yet “Reacher” gives us the answer and then keeps changing the question. Unlike Quentin Tarantino’s much-longer “Django Unchained,” McQuarrie’s “Jack Reacher” not only knows how to turn violent justice into entertainment but where to draw the line.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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