Tom Cruise is a tiny, annoying fellow. Jack Reacher is huge and taciturn. So aside from the plot, Christopher McQuarrie's "Jack Reacher" film — a decent actioner, but no "Bourne Identity" — has nothing to do with Lee Child's Reacher novels. Cruise couldn't be more miscast unless he played Falstaff. This matters to me because I have read all but two or three of Child's 18 Jack Reacher novels, and I don't appreciate Mr. Cruise messing with my engram.
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If you're a thriller fan and you're not reading the Reacher series, you're not a thriller fan. Like Greg Rucka's Atticus Kodiak and Barry Eisler's John Rain and a hundred cookie-cutter knockoffs, Jack Reacher is a formidable piece of ex-military hardware whose life is an uninterrupted series of physical encounters with evildoers. He has no fixed address or wardrobe, and hitchhikes around the country (catching a Greyhound when he can afford it) solving problems, eating in cheap diners and getting in and out of trouble.
In every entry in the series, there is a tangled web of injustice Reacher must unweave, principally by breaking people's noses with his forehead. In "Never Go Back," Reacher has a love interest, Maj. Susan Turner, the commanding officer of his former HQ, a long drink of water we met four installments ago. He has only talked to her on the phone, but her voice is "warm, a little husky, a little breathy, a little intimate," a little central-casting, so he heads to D.C. to ask her out for dinner, only to find that a nefarious crew of U.S. Army officials has, for Byzantine reasons, made it look as if she took a bribe in an espionage case.
It turns out that the nefarious crew is smuggling a plot twist out of Afghanistan. (Reacher figures out the plot twist on page 390, aided by his heretofore well-concealed knowledge of British Romanticism and by information that allowed anyone with half a brain to figure it out on page 272.) For Byzantine reasons, this operation requires the principals to frame Reacher for both murder and unpaid child support. (Reacher kills people all the time — in "Jack Reacher," Tom Cruise kills the only interesting character, played by Werner Herzog, which is metaphorically appropriate — but he's no deadbeat dad.) Reacher, for Byzantine reasons, is forcibly re-enlisted in the Army, whereupon he breaks Turner out of jail and they go about putting things to rights while evading the muscle the nefarious crew sets on their trail.
Lovers on the lam — it worked for Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Along the way, Reacher beats up people who cross him, preferably taking on more than one opponent at a time, including some good ol' boys whom he fights with his hands behind his back. He breaks bad guys' fingers and arms on a crowded flight without anyone's being the wiser. He helps out a teenage girl and disapproves strongly of one baddie's manhandling an innocent waitress, which gallantry causes the love interest verily to swoon.
Considerations that are beside the point include the lack of realism, the whiff of fascism and Child's strictly Econoline prose ("You're not just feral," Turner purrs to Reacher in a 30-bucks-a-night motel room "with a popcorn ceiling and vinyl wallpaper." "You're an actual animal."). You read this stuff for the same reason you eat banana splits or watch porn or smoke cigarettes. No one needs to tell you it's bad for you.
Still, "Never Go Back" isn't one of Child's stronger contributions to the kick-butt/take-names genre. The formula is only as good as its ingredients, and this time around the conspiracy of Powerful Men Who Will Stop at Nothing to Protect Their Revenue Stream is more contrived than usual. The sex is shot in cheesy soft-focus. The is-she-his-daughter subplot relies on red-herring coincidences. In an alarming development, Reacher is given to spouting inane theories of evolutionary biology that I assume he picked up by half-listening to an interview with Richard Dawkins on one of those bus-station televisions built into uncomfortable plastic chairs. And the denouement — well, the action ends with a bang (two, in fact) that sounds like a whimper.
This isn't to say I didn't swig "Never Go Back" like a kid with a cherry cola on opening day. But last year's "A Wanted Man" intriguingly tweaked the Reacher blueprint — the first third or so of the novel is devoted to a car ride, the action confined to locution and eye contact — and this return to sameness is a bit disappointing.
Maybe it's time Child put his Übermensch out to pasture. Fat chance: "Never Go Back," like its predecessors, will breeze to the top of the best-seller lists, and "A Wanted Man" won a Specsavers National Book Award for Crime & Thriller of the Year (a category I didn't know existed). Riches and prestige are at stake. If there's one thing Reacher understands besides fighting, it's numbers.
Still, plenty of authors of successful series — Georges Simenon, Agatha Christie, Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben — have taken a break from their big-budget characters to shake off the cobwebs, writing stand-alones or even beginning new series with different foci. I'd be interested to see what Child can do with a different cast and a fresh stage, maybe something smaller-bore and less testosterone-spiked. Maybe he could even come up with a hero for Tom Cruise to play.
Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collection "Alien vs. Predator" and a forthcoming book of criticism, "Equipment for Living."
"Never Go Back"
By Lee Child, Delacorte Press, 416 pages, $28Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun