Tom Cruise returns as a former U.S. Army Military Police Corps officer on a mission in the crime-thriller "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back." But while the first film -- titled simply "Jack Reacher" -- boasted bold action and the sharp sensibilities of "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation" helmer Christopher McQuarrie, the sequel is sadly sunk by the sentimentality and sloppy stunt sequences of Edward Zwick.
Based on the Lee Childs novel, "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" has the nomadic do-gooder (Cruise) flirting with a new romance via calls to the bemused Major Susan Turner ("The Avengers" Cobie Smulders). But before the pair can arrange their first date, she's been accused of treason and he's been framed for murder. So they must go on the run to clear their names and uncover an Afghanistan-based conspiracy. Oh, and along the way Reacher learns he may have a 15-year-old daughter named Sam (Danika Yarosh). So they snatch her to keep her safe from a scruffy-faced assassin (Patrick Heusinger) with lethal skills and ambiguous motivations.
The premise pitches Reacher, Turner and Sam into a family road trip scenario that forces the anti-authority loner to play daddy. He scolds Sam for using her cell phone, squabbles with Turner over discipline and gender roles, and sulks when he's left out of mother-figure/maybe-daughter bonding. On paper, this all has the potential to be funny. But Zwick's balance is jarringly off, as he never allows the characters to develop much beyond their staunch and humorless archetypes.
Far from the charismatic and smiling spy of "Mission: Impossible," Reacher is so stoic that Cruise could be made of Styrofoam for much of his close-ups. The sexual chemistry between he and Smulders suffers for it. Then Reacher's relationship with his could-be kid reads less "frustrated dad" and more "openly contemptuous." Making matters worse, Yarosh leans hard into angst, slamming doors, spitting snark, and generally being a pain-in-the-ass brat. As a bounced-about foster kid with serious Daddy issues, Sam comes by her bad attitude honest. But that doesn't make her or her arc engaging.
Props to Smulders, while Turner is written as little more than a "strong female character," the action heroine imbues her with a warmth and determination that make this sidekick character intriguing. Whether she's cajoling Sam into a sense of safety, calling Reacher out on his outdated parenting ideals, spooking an un-cooperative witness or busting heads and snapping necks, Smulders owns her moments with sharp eyes and a commanding physicality. Between this and her Marvel movies, perhaps it's time she gets an action vehicle of her own?
With Zwick spending so much screentime on a fumbling family dynamic, "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" bumbles along with fits of bickering and uninspired fight scenes. Honestly, it seems this helmer has little interest in action. The film begins with Reacher surrounded by the debris of a big fight scene we never get to see. An enticing car chase is over before it gears up. And a four-on-one hand-to-hand battle is so haphazardly shot and cut it seems better suited to Worldstarhiphop than a blockbuster movie screen. There's some solid stuff in the showdown between Cruise and Heusinger, who to his credit plays a one-note psycho with amusing relish. But Zwick stages this climax in the streets of a rowdy New Orleans Halloween parade while making barely any use of that visually rich setting.
Still, for all its flaws and wasted opportunities, this film is fine, just fine. It's adequate entertainment. But this sequel never feels fresh or special. From its tired arguments about parenthood and gender roles, to its tedious will-they-won't-they romance, to its eye-roll inducing final twist, "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" feels antiquated, as if it was a '90s movie dusted off and re-released instead of newly minted offering for savvy modern audiences. Still, even stripped of Ethan Hunt charm, Cruise is compelling. Smulder makes a great onscreen hero, though she deserved more screen time. But ultimately, the central relationships are too weak to make its big emotion-based payoff work, and the plot never elevates its beach read origins.
"Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" opens Friday.