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Action man Cruise can still rise to the occasion

Jack Reacher (12A)

HHH

Dir: Christopher McQuarrie

With: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins

Runtime: 130 minutes

YOU may not know Jack Reacher, the mega- selling fictional creation of Lee Child, from a jack in the box, but fans will be aware that every book opens with a question: "Who is Jack Reacher?"

Well, his CV on the opening pages says he doesn't have a middle name; he served 13 years in the US Military Police, winning lots of medals along the way; and his last known address is unknown. Playing a crucial part in painting a picture of the character is his physical description. At 6ft 5in and with a 50-inch chest, Reacher is built like a brick, um, extension.

It comes as some surprise, then, to find the less than 6ft 5in Tom Cruise playing the crime-investigating drifter who gets results when officialdom cannot. But it is only one of several eye-popping aspects of Christopher McQuarrie's thriller. Like the books, the director, Cruise, and a certain special guest star manage to leap the gulf between daft and daring in an entertaining way.

As such, Jack Reacher should be ideal festive period fare. But be aware: taking its title from the book of the same name, McQuarrie's film begins with scenes of a shooting, scenes that have, for understandable reasons, caused much comment in America.

The gunman has set up position in a garage across from a walkway in Pittsburgh, and proceeds to do his grisly business. When an arrest is made, the suspect has nothing to say by way of explanation, but he does have a request: "Get Jack Reacher".

Time to introduce our anti-hero, and McQuarrie does so in a manner that would not look out of place in a molto-cheesy Seventies crime flick. Lest we have any doubts that the Reacher we are about to meet is a stud muffin beyond compare, the sight of a woman putting on her bra, presumably after an exhausting round of strip Scrabble, is enough to put those fears to rest.

The next lady Reacher meets is the suspect's lawyer, played by Rosamund Pike. Trying to save a man from death row, she obviously has other things on her mind than Reacher's good looks but somehow, like the rest of the women in the film, she finds the time to appreciate them with a sly glance here and a smile there. Women and their multi-tasking, eh?

Like everyone else, the lawyer wants to know more about Reacher, the ex-military policeman who hitchhikes across America, determined to stay off the grid. His only luggage a toothbrush, Reacher famously buys his clothes from discount shops. We duly see Cruise's Reacher picking up some threads, and as luck would have it there's a designer leather jacket lurking in the rails. Must have been TK Maxx he was in.

Opposing Pike's efforts to free the suspect is a local detective, played by David Oyelow (TV's Small Island, The Help), and backing the police is the district attorney, played by Richard Jenkins (The Visitor and Killing Them Softly). As the investigation continues, with Reacher proving as accomplished a sleuth as Sherlock Holmes and Columbo combined, it is clear this is one open and shut case that won't shut.

McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects, Valykrie and The Tourist) doesn't want to leave an action scene once he has set it up, with the result that several go on well past their sell-by date. But even in the more ridiculous scenes – be it Reacher single-handedly fighting a posse of bad guys, smirking his way around half the city's female population, or being at the centre of a car chase that goes on and on and on – Cruise grins and bears it with a style all his own. Rather daringly, he makes Reacher slightly more difficult to like in the early stages than his literary creator does.

Oyelow and Jenkins, aided by the perennially classy Pike, play a big part in keeping the film just the right side of credible. But it is the toweringly confident Cruise on whom the film really rests, and he goes all out to prove, as the posters scream, that he "IS" Jack Reacher.

At 50, Cruise might be thought to be pushing the action man envelope, but he shows no sign of it here. Hard to believe that Top Gun was all of 26 years ago (perhaps that's where wardrobe found Reacher's leather jacket).

Everyone pulling hard on the rope of credibility proves necessary when Werner Herzog, usually a director of this parish, turns up as a mysterious foreigner named "The Zec", who is rather too interested in the details of the case. How to describe Herzog's acting style? Strange would be a place to start.

Herzog's appearance is all of a piece with a film that flirts with ridiculousness and just about gets away with it. A clear case of a film overreaching itself, but still walking away grinning.

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