It can be exhilarating to watch when an actor finds a director they click with.
The moment Tom Cruise strides into Jack Reacher , smouldering like an active volcano, that ‘click’ can be heard loud and clear.
It’s been a dozen years since the Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie ( The Usual Suspects ) directed his only film to date – the highly underrated modern western/noir The Way Of The Gun .
In that time, however, he co-wrote the script for the Cruise’s WW2 pic Valkyrie ; enough to convince the actor to collaborate on this adaptation of British writer Lee Child’s 2005 thriller One Shot .
The ninth novel in Child’s Jack Reacher series, the title bears relation to the sniper’s creed – “one shot, one kill” – a maxim of deadly economy which McQuarrie reflects in a super-lean opening sequence.
A shooter arrives in a parking lot, assembles his rifle and takes down five seemingly random passers-by. But carelessly dropping a shell-casing on the floor, he also leaves a conspicuous fingerprint on the coin he slots into a nearby parking meter.
It doesn’t take the cops long to trace it to James Barr (Joseph Sikora), a former military sniper. Promptly arrested, he refuses to talk – requesting just one thing: Jack Reacher.
A former military police officer (where “every suspect was a trained killer”), Reacher is now a drifter living off the grid – “a ghost” with little in the way of a past or, it seems, possessions (just the clothes he stands in).
“He doesn’t care about proof. He doesn’t care about the law. He only cares about what’s right,” says Barr.
But while that makes Reacher sound like a tagline to an ’80s thriller, his roots lie elsewhere. Part Jason Bourne, part Dirty Harry, Reacher is the outsider-vigilante, an anti-hero who lives a minimalist, monastic-like existence.
The twist – the first of several – is that Reacher is no friend of Barr’s. Rather, he believes the guy is guilty for a crime he committed years earlier but got away with on a technicality.
Yet gradually, as he begins to look at the case in conjunction with Barr’s lawyer, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike) – who just for added spice is going up against her District Attorney father, Alex Rodin (Richard Jenkins) – he becomes convinced the accused is innocent.
From the rather obvious trail of clues leading the police to Barr to the fact that a trained sniper missed one shot (and parked his van in an inopportune location), it seems he’s been set up. But by whom?
What can be said is that a shadowy figure, The Zec (Werner Herzog), a scarred Soviet gulag survivor, lurks in the background, alongside Jai Courtney’s henchman.
Unquestionably, the casting of Werner Herzog is the masterstroke. Although not a first for the German director, never has he been in such a high-profile Hollywood film.
Whatever next – Michael Haneke in The Expendables 3 ?
Still, enrolling Herzog as the villain is inspired thinking on McQuarrie’s part; that unmistakable Teutonic brogue that’s graced so many of his documentaries elicits multiple shivers when it’s welded to the character of The Zec.
A chilling, ruthless creation, with not an ounce of pity in his bones, Herzog delivers his lines with absolute cold-hearted malice.
But the trouble is, having crafted one of the most potentially memorable screen villains in recent Hollywood history, McQuarrie’s adaptation never quite gets to grips with Herzog, who almost lurks too far in the film’s background.
It doesn’t help that when he finally comes to the fore, in the film’s quarry-set finale, the action is so abrupt he barely has time to register. It’s one of Jack Reacher’s few missteps, in what is an otherwise on-target thriller.
Pike proficiently handles the testosterone-driven universe she steps into, while Robert Duvall arrives late for a welcome cameo.
As for Cruise, he may be shorter than the 6ft 5in Reacher of Child’s books – a topic that vexed some fans – but that doesn’t deter from one of his most intense, determined performances in recent memory.
From buzzing around town in a red Chevy muscle car to beating up a squadron of guys in a bar brawl, it’s Cruise at his most rough-hewn – even if he does find time for a muted smile when a bus passenger lends him a baseball cap to evade police attention.
Prioritising intrigue over body count, McQuarrie keeps the action clean and clinical, even if that troubled finale feels like a Call Of Duty free-for-all.
The Hollywood rumour mill has it that he could be in line to direct Cruise in Mission: Impossible 5 ; on this evidence, their ‘click’ will be worth hearing again.
A superior thriller, with Cruise and McQuarrie slotting together like a bullet in a clip. Like Reacher on the firing range, the aim isn’t always true – but the misses are fractional.