Jack Reacher opens with a horrific scene of carnage, as a sniper takes out a number of random civilians in downtown Pittsburgh. It's a moment that many will find even more troubling in the wake of the recent Newtown shootings. But give Christopher McQuarrie's film some credit: The scene is portrayed with an appropriate sense of its own monstrosity. The chill you'll feel going up your spine and the palpable discomfort in the theater feel earned.
The terror of that start, however, never finds a balance in the rest of the story, a mostly enjoyable thriller adapted from Lee Child's novel One Shot. A surprisingly understated Tom Cruise plays Reacher, a mysterious and brilliant drifter-slash-private-eye who is called on to investigate the killings. Somewhat reluctantly, he agrees to help dig into the crime for the accused sniper's defense attorney (a rather unfortunately over-the-top Rosamund Pike, never blinking). Sure enough, what appeared to be an open-and-shut case starts to look dodgy, and some mysterious people want Reacher dead or out of town.
That's when Reacher starts to think he's on the right track. Alas, it's also when the film starts to go off the rails. For much of its running time, Jack Reacher works as an effective, almost nostalgically modest mystery, and we get a kick out of the slow, patient buildup of facts and evidence. But once the real bad guys are revealed, led by a deliciously creepy Werner Herzog (playing a man who once chewed off his own fingers to survive a Russian prison camp — talk about international man of mystery), the movie becomes more concerned with action and less with suspense. Worse, these villains aren't so much diabolical as they are unconscionably evil. As the plot moves along, it succumbs to a game of corrosive brinksmanship, a crippling compulsion toward violent badassery.