Tom Cruise in a scene from Jack Reacher. Cruise plays a former military cop investigating a sniper case. Just turned 50

Poor timing for vigilante

“Who the hell is Jack Reacher?” people keep saying about Tom Cruise’s title character in Jack Reacher, and well they might ask. Although “why” is the better question. Reacher is a recurring character in a novel series by the author Lee Child, books so pulpy they almost leave juice stains on the pages. He’s an ex-cop, ex-military hard nut who travels by bus around America, violently defending the weak and innocent against the strong and culpable.

Jack Reacher

Two and a half stars (out of four)

Rated: 14A

“Who the hell is Jack Reacher?” people keep saying about Tom Cruise’s title character in Jack Reacher, and well they might ask.

Although “why” is the better question.

Reacher is a recurring character in a novel series by the author Lee Child, books so pulpy they almost leave juice stains on the pages.

He’s an ex-cop, ex-military hard nut who travels by bus around America, violently defending the weak and innocent against the strong and culpable.

Blunt as a fist (his preferred weapon) and resistant to romance, he’s also something of a phantom, taking pains to erase his tracks and sever all personal ties.

Cruise has described Reacher as a combo of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and Outlaw Josey Wales characters, and that certainly applies to Reacher’s street-justice attitudes.

Cruise also compares Reacher to James Bond, although I’d argue he’s closer to the modern incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, given his penchant for making arcane deductions — such as why a killer would stop to put a quarter into a parking meter.

You could even measure Reacher against the Batman seen in Christopher Nolan’s superhero trilogy, whom Christian Bale plays with a hoarse Clint Eastwood voice.

It all comes full circle, but then all such characters blur into something you could call the Vigilante With a Thousand Faces (with apologies to mythologist Joseph Campbell).

This brings us back to the “why” question. At a time when America seems absolutely infected with gun violence, last week’s Connecticut schoolhouse massacre being the most horrific of all such tragedies, you have to wonder why we continue to make and go to pictures such as Jack Reacher.

The film opens with a sniper calmly picking off five victims in a waterfront park in Pittsburgh.

The crosshairs find a target, a finger squeezes the trigger and a body falls as blood and tissue erupt.

There probably couldn’t be a worse timing for this film to open, unless it had been last Friday, the day the school shooting horror occurred.

Who really wants to see something like this, right now?

But I also wonder if it’s fair to put too much of a burden upon Jack Reacher, which is no worse and maybe a little better than most of the vigilante movies that clutter the multiplex.

And the story is about bringing a crazed sniper to justice, albeit a “justice” not concerned with the civility of law.

Cruise makes a convincing Reacher, no mean feat considering he stands a good nine inches shorter than the six-foot-five height the author assigns his man in the book series.

More important, Cruise stands and delivers, making you believe that he can take on five guys in a parking-lot brawl while barely cracking a sweat.

He’s portrayed versions of this character before, but he seems to pull Reacher from some deeper well of personal conviction, the notion of one good man against a corrupt world that so often seems to energize him, both on and off the screen.

Pity that the film he’s in, written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, suffers from the same bloat affecting so many movies of late.

What could be a taut 90 minutes turns into a puffy 130, as McQuarrie attempts to pack as many characters and twists into his plot as he did for his screenplay for The Usual Suspects.

McQuarrie has a quixotic sense of casting. He hires such usual competent suspects as Richard Jenkins, Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo to play various hardboiled representatives of the legal system.

Then he takes a walk on the wild side by tapping Robert Duvall to play a humorous rifle range owner (talk about your contradiction in terms) and documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog to play an over-the-top villain known as “the Zec.”

Herzog gets some of the ripest lines in McQuarrie’s citrus dialogue, the highlight being a speech where he describes eating the fingers off both his hands as survival tactics while incarcerated in a prison hellhole.

McQuarrie seems to have ghoulish sustenance on the brain. At one point, Reacher vows to his criminal prey, “I’ll drink your blood from my boot.”

In happier times, rarer of late, such macho banter would make for a merry time at the movies. Today, it’s not so easy to laugh, especially as we wonder if films like Jack Reacher are a cause or a symptom of the world’s violent affliction.

Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.

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