Tom Cruise has been an action star ever since the 90s at the very least. As such, he had something of a dip in his career in the 2000’s, probably mostly for personal reasons, but also because the action film in general has been in something of a crisis over the last decade. Today, things are looking up again and in no small part due to Cruise’s partnerships with Doug Liman and Christopher McQuarrie, with whom he has consistently delivered strong action fare ranging from the first “Jack Reacher” to “Mission Impossible 6: Rogue Nation”. They are so good together, over the next years, we can expect another four collaborations to hit our screens. The sequel to “Jack Reacher”, sadly, doesn’t see McQuarrie return to either direct or write, and it shows.
“Never Go Back” sees Reacher reconnecting with his past as he goes back to Washington D.C. and on the way, strikes up a tentative relationship with Major Turner, who is now doing his old job, over the phone. Things get complicated when he arrives and finds Major Turner in custody for espionage. As he is trying to investigate, he also meets a young teenager who might be his daughter. Director Edward Zwick has worked with Cruise before on “The Last Samurai”, but the partnership is not nearly as fruitful as the ones described above. That is not to say that “Never Go Back” is completely without merit, it’s certainly an entertaining movie for the most part, but it falls short on so many counts, it’s infuriating. But before we get to that, some praise.
The action is handled quite well. It’s mostly hand-to-hand combat, which is shot well, especially when Reacher and Cobie Smulders’ Major Turner have to work together. Reacher, Turner and the sinister operative that is on their heels are all very capable, and especially Smulders proves that between this and Maria Hill in the Avengers franchise, she can absolutely sell an action scene. The violence is also not softened up too much, so when people get hit, the audience feels it.
The setting and the conflict it represents for Reacher is also very intriguing, but here the film falls flat because it tries to do too much for one film. In the original film, we met Jack Reacher, an intriguing character, who presents an interesting spin on the original conception of John Rambo, the veteran who found that upon returning from war, he didn’t fit in with society anymore. So, Reacher steps out of it completely. He is a vagabond who isn’t tied down by anything or anyone. The second intriguing aspect is that Reacher didn’t just finish his tour of duty, he left the army by his own volition, and we don’t know exactly why.
The film wants to challenge Reacher on every aspect of this at the same time. Not only does Reacher start the film flirting with Major Turner, a possibly lasting human connection, who is also working in his former job as an MP, a connection to his days with the army, it also gives him a possible daughter in Samantha, not just a possible connection, but an obligation, which he clearly feels. I found myself plotting out how these questions could better be confronted over the course of two sequels, rather than one. The short version: The daughter must go.
This would also free up some screen-time for Patrick Heusinger to develop the antagonist a bit more and Aldis Hodge, who plays Captain Espin, an MP who holds a grudge against Reacher from his days in the military. Every single supporting character in this film presents a great opportunity to interrogate Reacher’s character further, but none of them does so in any significant way. This is most annoying when Major Turner doesn’t push back against him. Turner should have been a version of Reacher who stayed in the military and wants to go back (something Reacher can never do, as the title reminds us). However, one of the first conversations they have in person has her explicitly stating her sympathy with his point of view, and the script never brings her back from that.
Major Turner is also the awkward centre of an attempt to deliver on the obvious desire for stronger female characters in action cinema. We have seen so many great ones in the last few years, two of those opposite Tom Cruise in “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Rogue Nation”. However, “Never Go Back” stumbles by giving her an awkward speech about the sexism she has encountered in her career, only to be steamrolled by Reacher within seconds. It’s especially infuriating because for a lot of it, the film is on the right path. Turner is capable, layered and while there is a romantic streak to her relationship with Reacher, she is not defined by it. Regrettably, the script doesn’t manage to keep the focus on those aspects and in the end, this turns out to be just one more aspect where the writer put the foundation for greatness into place and then chose to build somewhere else.
Ultimately, “Never Go Back” still works as an entertaining two hours at the cinema, but even in a relatively weak year for cinema, this still falls through the cracks. I was excited for it, but we have seen so much better in the last few years.