Jack Reacher: Never Go Back does not offer enough high-octane action or clever mystery to stand out from the glut of so-so crime movies.
After Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) disbands a human trafficking operation, the "retired" Military Police Major-turned private investigator gains an ally in Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) - a successor in Reacher's former Virginia-based military unit, the 110th MP. Over time and over the phone, the pair form a close (and flirtatious) working relationship: Turner offers remote support and local MP resources as Reacher drifts from one case and locale to the next - and the two playfully fantasize about what might happen should they ever meet in person.
However, when Reacher's travels bring him to Virginia, he decides to pay Turner a visit - only to find that Turner has been relieved of her command and charged with espionage. Unwilling to accept that Turner, a dedicated and respected commander in the MP Corps, is guilty of the crime, Reacher sets out to clear her name by placing himself between the Major and a dangerous military organization - lead by a ruthless operative known as "The Hunter" (Patrick Heusinger). In the process, a destitute teenager, Samantha Dayton (Danika Yarosh), who Reacher believes could be his daughter, is unknowingly pulled into the lethal conflict - reminding the retired MP hero why he's better suited for a life on the road without personal relationships and responsibilities.
Thanks to a clever story (borrowing from pieces of Lee Child's best-selling novel series), solid action set pieces, amusing supporting heroes, and a biting villain (played by Jai Courtney), Christopher McQuarrie's Jack Reacher exceeded expectation - to craft a surprisingly fresh and exciting crime drama that both book fans and casual filmgoers could appreciate. Unfortunately, while director Edward Zwick's follow-up film, Never Go Back, includes similar pieces - none are as well-defined or impactful this round. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is the definition of "franchise sequel" - fleeting entertainment that is dull when compared to a more interesting and well-crafted experience that made a film series possible in the first place.
Just as Jack Reacher was an adaptation of "One Shot" that borrowed from additional plot lines in the Jack Reacher books, the sequel is an equally loose adaptation of the Never Go Back novel - once again pulling backstory and series mythology (including Turner) from volumes outside the source book. As sequel's often endeavor, Never Go Back aims to say something profound about its main character - suggesting that Reacher, in spite of his self-imposed drifter life, struggles with loneliness and longs for intimate human relationships.
This could have been a rewarding approach, if it were balanced with great action and clever plot twists but Zwick (who directed Cruise on The Last Samurai) over-saturates the movie with tangled storylines and underwhelming revelations - bogging down Reacher's investigation with bland confrontations and cumbersome storytelling hurdles that prevent Never Go Back from building to a satisfying climax (in either emotion or plot). Action is in short supply - and often regresses into routine fist-fights without presenting audiences anything particularly inventive (such as the standout car chase in the first Jack Reacher).
Where Reacher was a relatively stoic tour de force in the 2012 film, allowing the people around him (both good and bad) to enjoy the spotlight, the Jack Reacher in Never Go Back is an uneven mix of tough talk, melodrama, and saccharine humor - a tricky blend for a chapter that sees the hero navigate flirtatious encounters and the challenges of "parenting" a rebellious teenager. Conversely, even though the movie is more light-hearted than its predecessor, there are several mature aspects (such as sex trafficking, torture, intimidation, and drug abuse) that are at odds with Zwick's slightly more hopeful installment. Cruise negotiates his scenes in stride, maintaining the actor's standard for charming and fun performances, but the larger Never Go Back plot and portrayal still undercuts most of the small choices that separated this franchise protagonist from similar action heroes (including others portrayed by Cruise).
Supporting players in Never Go Back are equally uneven - with one exception: Cobie Smulders as Major Susan Turner. Smulders riffs on her role as Maria Hill from the Marvel Cinematic Universe but the world of Jack Reacher affords the actress with an uncompromising heroine and several hard-hitting combat sequences - including a (brutal) crowd-pleasing third act take down. Through Turner, Smulders casts a spotlight on the added challenges of being a capable woman serving as a female commander in the U.S. military - challenges that are often typified by Reacher (who, despite good intentions and respect for Turner, still views the Major as a woman in need of protection).
Samantha Dayton (Danika Yarosh) also tests Reacher's preconceptions but where Turner defies stereotypes and proves her mettle throughout the film, Dayton routinely asks for Reacher's respect - only to be undermined by mistakes the story needs the character to make (in order to move the plot forward). Yarosh and Cruise have entertaining chemistry but for all the logistical hurdles of a road trip movie featuring two lethal army vets and an unruly teenager pursued by a murderous assassin, Turner convolutes more than she illuminates.
More than any other aspect of the film, Patrick Heusinger's Hunter is symptomatic of Zwick's attempt to rehash what worked well in Jack Reacher - only to deliver an adequate but uninspired variation. Like Jai Courtney's Charlie, Hunter is a cold-blooded killer who views any altercation with Reacher as a game to be won - regardless of the collateral damage. Yet, where Charlie was a quiet, calculating, and haunting presence (a smart juxtaposition to Reacher), The Hunter is a noisy and reckless sociopath - whose bite never quite matches his bark.
Ultimately, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back offers another dose of Jack Reacher - which could satisfy series fans who are interested in a new adventure with the Ex-Major. That said, McQuarrie's adaptation was a welcome surprise that managed to differentiate itself from a long line of franchise action-dramas - and, as a result, found an audience through positive word of mouth. Unfortunately, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back does not offer enough high-octane action or clever mystery to stand out from the glut of so-so crime movies.