12/20/2012 07:56 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Movie Review: Jack Reacher

There's nothing wrong with Jack Reacher that couldn't be helped by losing 15 or 20 minutes of exposition and other kinds of explaining.

Sort of like Lee Child's Jack Reacher books: They're long and involved but only sporadically interesting. Reacher himself spends far too much time on the kind of ratiocination that feels like so much procedural boilerplate.

Not that there aren't things to enjoy about this film. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie will have you gasping with surprise at the velocity and ferocity of some of the action. There are sadistic, guilty-pleasure laughs at moments of unexpectedly brutal violence, performed by Tom Cruise as the title character. He's always got a look on his face that says, "I never kid," even when he's flashing a bemused smile at the expression on the face of someone whose groin has just experienced a life-altering encounter with Jack Reacher's fist.

One Shot, the novel on which the film is based, isn't the first book in the Jack Reacher series, just the first to be made into a movie. It's not surprising that it took this long; Child's books are more talk than action, despite the fact that Reacher is a man of few words. Instead, the novels tend to be unnecessarily convoluted, without being complicated in an interesting way.

So it is with Jack Reacher, which goes the long way around, building to a colossal anticlimax. Still, getting there is an admittedly (if intermittently) entertaining ride.

The film opens in Pittsburgh which, along with the cities of Louisiana, now stands as one of our more popular movie locations because of the tax advantage those sites offer. A sniper drives to the top of a parking structure and casually pops five seemingly random strangers hundreds of yards away across a river. He leaves enough evidence for the police to track him down in less than 24 hours. They arrest an ex-military sharpshooter with a history that includes a similar incident in the Middle East, for which he wasn't prosecuted.

The suspect's only words to the police are written on a pad of paper: "Get Jack Reacher." Which of course leads the local authorities to ask the question: Who?

Then Tom Cruise casually strolls into the police headquarters and, before long, has been engaged by the sniper's attorney to be her investigator on the case. Reacher has a past history with the suspect, though not as friends.

Eventually, we get what little backstory there is about Reacher: He's ex-military police who mustered out and fell off the grid a few years earlier. He is a self-described drifter who travels with no suitcase and whose idea of a change of clothes is buying a new set at Goodwill and disposing of the old ones.

The defense attorney, Helen (Rosamund Pike), has a wide-eyed look, like she's just been slapped. Pike is a resourceful actress but here she's just Reacher's disbelieving foil, who eventually comes to appreciate his skills, both as a detective and a one-man army.

Reacher quickly concludes that the man in custody isn't the shooter and eventually figures out the real killer and the motive. Along the way, he engages in some rousing close-quarters martial-arts, as well as a "Let's step outside" moment with five assailants, three of whom he sends to the hospital.

Yes, we get it: He's an antihero with a thing for helping the underdog and a sneering attitude toward figures of authority. He doesn't play fair and he doesn't play nice, which is why he becomes a target for the real villains and why he makes such short work of them whenever they get within reach.

But McQuarrie's script keeps trying to humanize Reacher, even as Cruise plays him cool and hard-shelled. Cruise is actually kind of fun as this lone wolf, resisting efforts to engage him emotionally and casually spitting acidic one-liners at people who annoy him, just before he kicks their ass. At one point, he uses the head of one opponent to smash in the head of another opponent. Repeatedly.

There's a stripped-down action-thriller within the confines of Jack Reacher, one that perhaps could match McQuarrie's Oscar-winning script for The Usual Suspects. But unfortunately, Jack Reacher's impact is muffled by excessive padding, which makes things crawl when they should be hopping.

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