Lawrence Toppman

Tom Cruise shines in ‘Jack Reacher’ sequel. Otherwise, it’s horrible.

Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise, left) explains to small-town cops (Jason Douglas and Judd Lormand) why he has the upper hand in “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.”
Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise, left) explains to small-town cops (Jason Douglas and Judd Lormand) why he has the upper hand in “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.” PARAMOUNT PICTURES

You cannot always judge movies by their titles, but you sometimes get good advice. The sequel “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back,” supplies its own five-word review.

I didn’t see the first, nor did I get caught up in arguments over whether Tom Cruise should play the hero of Lee Child’s novels. To me, Cruise is the best thing about the follow-up to the 2012 “Jack Reacher:” laconic, world-weary, credible in Edward Zwick’s clumsy action sequences.

But director Zwick, who wrote the script with Richard Wenk and Marshall Herskovitz, gives Cruise nothing interesting to do. The plot comes from a conspiracy-movie template; profanity-laced dialogue sounds as if parodists hacked the screenplay; characters have no compelling personality traits or back stories; the violence, savage if mostly bloodless, grows dull and inexplicably earned a PG-13 rating.

A military supplier paid to bring surplus U.S. weapons back from Afghanistan sells them instead to local warlords. Bad guys whack two soldiers to protect an even darker secret and get a suspicious major (Cobie Smulders) jailed on a false espionage charge.

Luckily, military prisons are as easy to slip out of as fast-food restaurants at lunchtime, so Reacher frees her and sets about to collect exonerating evidence. He’s aided by a 15-year-old thief (Danika Yarosh), whose mother claims Reacher is her dad.

Reacher is virtually omniscient, impervious to pain, as fast-healing as Wolverine and capable of killing people with anything from a pistol to a salt shaker. But he’s smart mostly because someone behaves stupidly in every scene: Leaving keys in a military police car, putting a cash-choked wallet within his reach and walking away, jeering at him instead of shooting him when he’s unarmed.

And the dialogue! An assassin who captures the thief taunts, “I’m gonna have some fun with your pretty little girl. I’ve found a way to hurt you like you’ve never hurt before!” I jotted down other choice lines, but I was laughing so hard I can’t read my notes.

Even the casting consists entirely of clichés: the chief conspirator with the sneeringly smug grin, a belly-thrusting small-town sheriff who smells of corruption, the lean and wolflike gunman known as The Hunter. (He gets one of those silly monologues where he insists he and Reacher are alike.)

All of them are white men, of course. The heroes, other than Cruise, are a couple of women – one of whom we see in her underwear, because soldiers can be hot chicks, too – a resourceful teen girl and a black captain (Aldis Hodge) who realizes he needs to help them.

Zwick, who directed the groundbreaking “Glory” 27 years ago, wants to redress Hollywood’s long-standing racism and sexism. But a picture this foolish drags everyone down, regardless of gender or color.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Jack Reacher: Never Go Back’

1/2

Cast: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Danika Yarosh, Aldis Hodge.

Director: Ed Zwick.

Length: 118 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (sequences of violence and action, some bloody images, language and thematic elements).

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