A few weeks ago I watched Alex Gibney’s terrifying Scientology documentary Going Clear, yet still came out of the end of that film going “Yeah that’s awful but I still love Tom Cruise.” Few movie stars are as exciting to watch, and as fascinating to examine. So yeah, even though Never Go Back is lacking in several departments from its superior predecessor, I still enjoyed the hell out of watching Cruise do his thing. Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher is hands down one of the coolest, bad-ass films of the decade. Never Go Back lacks the steady hand of McQuarrie’s guidance, his natural cinematic sense of cool. Never Go Back’s director Edward Zwick is simply just not as skilled a filmmaker and storyteller as McQuarrie. He doesn’t realize how joyous an opportunity it is to film Cruise kicking ass. His direction is mostly point and shoot with little ambition or excitement. Does he even want to be here? Cruise is doing the heavy lifting for both of them here, yet it’s not quite enough. But still, Never Go Back has two of my favorite things in cinema in abundance – Tom Cruise running and Tom Cruise kicking ass.
Watching Tom Cruise run is like watching real art happen right before you, probably how that dude in American Beauty felt videotaping the plastic bag – you know it’s incredible and special, but you’ll never be able to explain why. If running is an art, Cruise is a master artist. In the first film, Cruise was Steve-McQueen-in-Bullittresurrect. As if Cruise wasn’t already an icon of cinema, McQuarrie continued to find new realms of bad-ass for Cruise to lay claim to. A lot of fans of the book series complained about Cruise’s casting as he’s almost a whole foot shorter than Jack Reacher is in the books, but the thing is, that doesn’t matter – Cruise kicks ass like he’s 8 feet tall.
For example, there’s a part in Never Go Back where a villain tells Jack Reacher that he sounds like he has fear in his voice. Reacher replies “I’m going to break your legs, I’m going to break your arms, and then I’m going to break your neck. What you’re hearing is excitement.” As if it couldn’t get any better, IT DOES. Reacher literally does exactly those things to the bad guy, verbatim, word for word. And if having that happen on screen does nothing for you, then I don’t know what to tell you.
I can now add a third favorite thing in cinema that pertains to Cruise, which is Tom Cruise being a shitty dad. For whatever reason, the filmmakers decided to give Jack Reacher a moody teenage daughter in Sam (Danika Yarosh), and it’s actually really interesting to watch but not for the reasons it purports to be. Reacher (and Cruise, by some extension) is completely incapable of having human relationships, he’s too much of a violent sociopath to be warm and comforting, so when he tries it’s actually incredibly unsettling. In it’s own bizarre, quasi-meta way, Never Go Backacts as an interesting self-examination of Cruise’s staredown with aging, and his own humanity. Cruise is 54 years old and is still in better shape than I’ll ever be. As I write this I’m wearing a knee brace, meanwhile Cruise is performing elaborate, hyper-physical stunts that professionals half his age would sweat in fear at. Cruise is doing more action this decade than he has before, getting in every lick before his seemingly-perfect body finally gives out. As I watched Never Go Back, I found myself asking, is this the first time I’ve seen Cruise play a dad? Think about it, when was the last time, if ever, he played a father? I feel like he’s consciously avoided that role in defiance of accepting his aging. But here he does accept that role, is he in some way accepting his own mortality? And in doing this father role, what does it reveal about Cruise as a movie star and a human? The cutesie father-daughter banter between Jack and Sam never feels natural, like we’re watching what Cruise thinks a father-daughter relationship is supposed to look like based on what others have told him. Reacher can never quite connect with his daughter, but even moreso, Cruise can never quite connect with those emotional moments it’s like he’s too distant from those on camera with him. Cruise has always been a very image-conscious actor, and in a way Never Go Back feels very revealing in how he stumbles through these basic familial interactions. I admit, I’m probably taking this way too far, but isn’t part of the reason we’ve all watched Cruise all these years out of fascination of who he is? I mean of course, after the first reason we watch his films – to watch him run and kick ass?