Five people are gunned down in the middle of the day, shot at random by a single killer. In a matter of minutes, the police examine footprints, recover bullet casings and view surveillance tape of the apparent assailant's van. They find the quarter the guy used to feed the meter, covered with fingerprints. They belong to James Barr, an Iraq War vet with a problematic past.
He's quickly apprehended and presented with a choice: Confess now and live, or go through a trial and face execution. But when he's given a piece of paper, he seems to reject both paths. "Get me Jack Reacher," he writes.
The movie Jack Reacher is based on the book One Shot, which is the ninth installment in Lee Child's crime series. It places Reacher in Pittsburgh. And it quickly plops us down in the middle of a problem. Certainly a problem for James Barr. And a problem for his defense attorney too. You see, Jack Reacher is practically, literally, a nobody. Oh, he used to be a talented military cop—a guy with a near photographic memory and a positively frightening left hook. But two years ago, he disappeared. He has no credit cards, no driver's license, nothing. There's no possible way anybody can track down this guy.
And then Jack just shows up. He strikes up a conversation with Helen, Barr's lead attorney, who promptly tries to hire him as her lead investigator.
Maybe that's not a great idea—even setting aside the fact that it's probably not the best legal practice to hire a mysterious, homeless drifter—no matter what his presumed past might boast. And here's another problem for Barr: Jack thinks the guy is guilty. And he knows the vet has killed before.
But Jack's curious about the case, so he agrees to help. And, as he digs around, he starts to form some questions: How could Barr, just an average marksman in the army, kill so efficiently? Were the victims really as random as they looked? And why on earth would a murderer plug a parking meter before going on a shooting spree? Wouldn't he have more pressing concerns than a parking ticket?
"You think I'm a hero?" Jack says. "I'm not." And as we shall see, Jack is no liar.
The best we can say here is that while he does some bad things (a lot of bad things), he does them for what he thinks are good reasons. He's all about meting out justice (or at least his version of justice), and he's determined to make sure the right person pays for the crimes at hand. When Jack realizes that Barr's not the killer he thinks he is, he sets aside his personal animosity for the guy and pursues the real culprits with the tenacity of a rabid wolverine.
He's aided in his pursuit by an idealistic defense attorney, who also shows a good dose of righteous gumption and very little quit. Both of them go above and beyond (sometimes waaaaay beyond) the call of duty.
Sandy, a woman in a midriff-revealing top, makes some moves on Jack in a bar, telling him that perhaps they could go somewhere quieter.
"You're old enough to drive?" he asks.
"I'm old enough to do a lot of things," she answers. But when he says he can't "afford" her, she takes offense and calls her "brothers" over. The words "whore" and "slut" are thrown around before the men usher Jack out of the bar. (She admits to Jack later that it was a setup—that she was told Jack was a pervert and would have his hands all over her.)
Later, we see Sandy again, wearing a different midriff-revealing top. A woman wearing just a pair of black panties puts on her bra. (She's shown from the back.)
Helen and Jack discuss the case in Jack's hotel room. He's walking around shirtless, flustering Helen a bit. And when he tells her she should get some sleep, she takes it as a come-on. Turns out it wasn't. He sticks her car keys in her hand and leads her to the door. Jack speculates that two of the victims were having an affair.
The conflict outside the bar with Sandy's "brothers" shows the softer, gentler side of Jack: He only beats three of them senseless. He merely kicks two of them in the crotch, and just comes close to breaking a couple of limbs … even allowing two others to run away.
Later, two thugs make like the Three Stooges as they attack Jack—doing far more damage to an innocent bathroom and each other than to Mr. Reacher. After one thug is knocked out by the other with a baseball bat, Jack takes down the conscious culprit by pounding his face into what little remains of the bathroom tile. He then repeatedly thwacks the bad guys' heads together and, as a finale, nearly breaks some fingers with a gun—forcing those fingers' owner to release his car into Jack's less-than-careful custody.
But these evildoers get off easy. Jack guns down a handful of bad guys—including one at point-blank range, in the face, after the man had pretty much surrendered. He tells another over the phone that he aims to kill him, saying, "I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot." And then he apparently does beat the guy to death—breaking his leg and fingers, kneeing him in the face … before pushing his boot down on his head.
"What about bringing them to justice?" Helen gasps.
"I just did," Jack says.
None of those violent scenes feel quite so visceral or so wrong, though, as the opening sequence in which we see the five innocents gunned down. Little blood is shown (except in crime photos after the fact), but with real-life killings (such as the ones in Newtown, Conn., perpetually fresh in many moviegoers minds, the sight of these civilians falling prey to a killer's bullets feels especially painful. And we see the carnage twice—once from the shooter's point of view and then in flashback, watching as they run helplessly from the bullets. A young nanny, for example, runs while carrying her 6-year-old charge to what she hopes will be safety. "We're going to be OK," she tells the girl in a breathless mantra. "We're going to be OK. We're going to—"
A bullet silences her forever. (The child survives.)
Elsewhere, a bad guy is encouraged to chew off his own fingers in a show of strength and loyalty. When he fails to do so, he's shot and killed. (The killer takes out a saw, suggesting that the body will be dismembered.) Two thugs kill a woman—one punching her in the back of the head, knocking her out, the other covering her nose and mouth and smothering her. Her body is later found in an alley, and we see her mottled face. Another woman is Tasered.
A detective wishes Barr a long life in prison "with all your teeth knocked out." Indeed, Barr is brutally beaten by other prisoners, leaving him comatose. (We see part of the attack, as Barr's face is bloodied, and him in a hospital bed where he's barely recognizable.) In flashback, Barr guns down four men in Iraq. Though he didn't know it at the time, the men had just finished what Jack calls a "rape rally," assaulting women and girls as young as 11.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word. About 10 s-words. We hear flurries of profanity that include "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "h‑‑‑," "p‑‑‑y" and "p‑‑‑ed." Jesus' name is abused eight or nine times; God's is misused two or three (once with "d‑‑n").
Drug and Alcohol Content
Helen drinks beer. A scene takes place in a crowded bar, where scores of folks are holding and drinking alcohol. We hear that a henchman cooks meth. That man's mother, sitting on the porch, looks nearly catatonic, drug paraphernalia on the table beside her. References are made to being "wasted."
Other Negative Elements
Jack either steals or forcibly "borrows" three cars (destroying two of them). He flees from authorities, launching a crash-bang-bombastic car chase. Bystanders help him evade the police.
Folks make reference to passing gas and menstrual cycles.
When Helen asks Jack why he lives as he does, Jack pulls her over to a window and shows her buildings full of cubicles and folks working hard to pay off mortgages and credit cards. "Tell me, which ones are free?" Jack asks.
Jack believes he is the one who lives in almost perfect freedom. He has no debts, no fixed place of residence, no attachments. He comes and goes as he pleases. The guy's such a free spirit he doesn't acknowledge anyone or anything that could possibly restrict his freedom—including the laws that he, in his own twisted way, tries to uphold.
"He doesn't care about the law," we hear. "He doesn't care about proof. He just cares about what's right." Which, seems to me, would be the mantra of many a lawbreaker—from the woman who runs a stoplight because she's late to an important meeting, to a man who assaults his girlfriend's presumed lover with a knife. "Don't bust me," they might say to the officers arriving on the scene, "I had reason. I was doing what I thought was right."
As I already reported, Jack himself says he's no hero. But within the confines of a movie that practically fawns over his actions (and arriving onscreen in the always charismatic guise of Tom Cruise), Jack might be mistaken for one by a lot of moviegoers.
All of us can confuse justice and vengeance, I think. Given the right circumstances, the right killers, we can all reach Jack's conclusion: Real justice is cowboy justice, doled out in lead and blood. And watching evildoers pay, as they do here in Jack Reacher, can indeed be satisfying. But that doesn't make it right.