‘Jack Reacher: Never Go Back’
Director:
Edward Zwick
Stars: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

Is a second entry too early to break a franchise? “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” should have been the fourth or fifth entry in the series: the killjoy one that ruins the fun after a good long run. The “Thin Man” series waited two whole chapters until Nora got knocked up and could no longer drink, even if Nick still downed cocktails for a touch longer. The second in Tom Cruise’s pint-sized bruiser series doesn’t rob him of his most valuable assets: He still delivers deadpan put-downs as well as he does debilitating blows. He also has a partner. And a possible daughter. And at one point he remarks forlornly about his lonely life. He even smiles.

This is grim news for an already grim year. Still, it could be worse. The partner happens to be played by Cobie Smulders, the delightful “How I Met Your Mother” alum and Marvel ass-kicker. As a falsely framed army Major Susan Turner, Smulders is essentially playing her aggro personal trainer from Andrew Bujalski’s indie “Results,” only now she gets to break arms on top of screaming at people. Before the mix-up, Susan is engaged in a flirty phone relationship with Cruise’s Reacher, who’s still prowling the country, still injecting himself in little dilemmas, still not ready to settle down. But he’s into Susan, so much that he pays her an unannounced visit in D.C., only to find that she’s in jail for murder.

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Smulders is dynamic a presence, as tough as her lightning-focused screen partner, that it’s not a shame when Reacher busts her out before the first act ends. It should be a shame: Reacher thrives on alone time, on being a dick to hotheads who think he’s too short (and, at 54, too old, too) to bring it. Pairing him with a snippy partner, who’s none too happy on the few occasions he won’t let her bust heads alongside him, should be a buzzkill. And it is. Forcing him to talk to people more than infrequently means there are too few scenes like the best bits from the first, like the one where Reacher insults a bar floozy, then handily takes out five of her male friends, just for kicks. Reacher has to be on his best behavior, has to be told to parcel out the ownage. Even with someone as adept and winning as Smulders, it can’t help but be a bit of a drag.

Of course, the first “Jack Reacher” wasn’t a one-man show. It was crisply directed by Christopher McQuarrie, whose filmmaking was as lean and no-nonsense as his star and hero. Here, we get Edward Zwick, a man of sentiment, who could even turn a movie about Nazi-killing Jews (“Defiance”) into a drippy slog. Since Reacher’s fuzzier moments are put off till the end, Zwick spends most of his time coming off like a rando hack, shooting the action competently but with a wobbly camera that softens Reacher’s precise blows. Arguably worse, instead of no less than Werner Herzog, making his action movie debut as the main baddie, we get … some guy. We’re not even going to look up his name. He’s just some guy who can hurt people almost as good as Reacher, but not quite. But not all’s in vain. Go see “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back,” but only so they make a third one where a Zwick-less Tom Cruise battles a surprise villain played by film director Rob Zombie.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge