More than most movies opening during the crowded holiday season, "Jack Reacher" has several hurdles to overcome.
It's based on a popular book about a character who is far taller and heavier than Tom Cruise, prompting some lovers of the novel to swear off the movie (and any sequels) without even seeing them.
"Jack Reacher" is not exactly light family fare, but then again neither is Christmas Day opener "Django Unchained." And it unfolds with a dramatic sequence in which a sniper in a Downtown Pittsburgh parking garage aims his weapon at the sun-drenched walkway outside PNC Park and kills five people.
3 stars = Good
Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Robert Duvall, David Oyelowo.
PG-13 for violence, language and some drug material.
The scene wasn't invented for the movie by director-writer Christopher McQuarrie, an Oscar winner for "The Usual Suspects" screenplay. It was in the 2005 Lee Child novel but comes a week after the real-life massacre in Connecticut, and it threatens to make moviegoers wince or flash on events outside the darkened auditorium.
Having said all of that, "Jack Reacher" allows Pittsburgh to play Pittsburgh in all its grand and gritty glory. I don't have a dozen Lee Child books floating around my memory bank, just the source novel "One Shot," but Mr. Cruise pulls off the title character, drawing on years of fearless action heroes and banking his signature smile throughout.
Readers may miss several of the female characters apparently jettisoned in service of a more streamlined story forcing moviegoers to take actions and motives at face value.
This "Jack Reacher" is a leaner and more muscular story in every regard, and that includes a chase scene with Mr. Cruise at the wheel of a 1970 Chevelle SS.
The muscle car screeches into alleys, accelerates across illuminated bridges and down city streets in a long sequence with no music or dialogue, only the sound of an engine pushed to its limits in bursts and tires shedding outer layers of rubber skin.
TV reports about the sharpshooter's actions bring Reacher, a former military investigator, to town. He's a ghost in a tethered and transparent world; he shuns planes and cars in favor of buses or shoe leather and has no phone, permanent address or even a suitcase of clothing.
He arrives in Pittsburgh convinced the man in custody is guilty. But he begins to rethink that as he encounters the district attorney (Richard Jenkins) and his defense attorney daughter (Rosamund Pike), an efficient police investigator (David Oyelowo), a shooting range operator (Robert Duvall, bringing some much-needed humor and zest), a working girl seductress (Alexia Fast) and, eventually, The Zec (Werner Herzog), a mysterious man lurking in the shadows.
"Jack Reacher," which features Mr. Child in a cameo as a uniformed desk sergeant, provides a showcase for some local performers, including David Whalen as a man touched by tragedy and blond-haired Sophie Guest of Ben Avon as a little girl in harm's way.
The story, which could have used more sexual sizzle and spikes of outrage, excels when Reacher tries to spell out exactly who he is. "You think I'm a hero?" he challenges. "I'm a drifter with nothing to lose."
It's hard to warm to such a character but easy to watch him dispense his outlaw brand of justice, especially on streets, slopes and sidewalks so close to home. It's no "Perks of Being a Wallflower" or "The Dark Knight Rises," but it was never intended to be, either.