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Tom Cruise fits into the role of Jack Reacher

Lee Childs' "Jack Reacher" novel readers were understandably livid. When non-readers went on Childs' Jack Reacher website, for instance, they learned that Childs' fictional anti-hero was supposed to be 6'5" and weigh somewhere between 220 and 250 pounds. He was also supposed to have a 50-inch chest. According to one of Childs' characters, Reacher was "built like the side of a house."

Tom Cruise is not built like the side of a house. He's more like a broad-shouldered trellis. I've stood next to him in a Los Angeles hotel suite that accommodated serial interviews. My best guess is that he's 5'7" or 5'8" and weighs a buck seventy tops.

You can understand why devoted readers of Childs' many Reacher novels were so put out to learn that their ambulatory house would be played by Cruise instead of, say, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson whose age wasn't right but whose size is almost exactly the same as the fictional Reacher, right down to the pectoral circumference. (And while we're on the subject, why couldn't Reacher be mixed race?)

But Cruise was right - absolutely right to make these films. Getting into the Jack Reacher business was as smart as can be for something to be played by a fiftysomething box office behemoth of decades-long standing.

Cruise is now 54. At his age, Errol Flynn had been dead for four years. Cary Grant was hooking up with Ingrid Bergman in "Indiscreet" and Sophia Loren in "Houseboat." Jimmy Stewart was making "Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation." John Wayne made "Big Jake" at 64 (and the next year, "The Cowboys" where he was in charge of teen cowboys until, for the first time onscreen playing a non-historic role in a Western, he was knocked off by Bruce Dern). What the classic era Hollywood male stars had in common at 54 were mature roles -- often with younger people who needed caring for onscreen.

That's why you've got Cruise's second Reacher movie in which he's doing some of his best, straightforward work in years. His challenges are bigger than most actors'. His lifelong problem and his lifelong advantage are the same thing: his hopeless boyishness. He's a good male movie star for an infantile and spoiled era. But it makes aging onscreen tougher than it is for most. (Gary Cooper died at 60, looking 10 years older. At Cruise's age, he was making "The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell," no one's idea of a puerile movie.)

No, it's never been easy to believe Cruise could be physically capable of the monster brutality Jack Reacher tosses off in the first third of this movie. Could he turn four brawny attackers into fish food in a brawl outside a diner? Could he punch a guy's lights out through a thick car window?

Dwayne Johnson? Sure. We'd believe that without stretching all that much. But Cruise, a bit like Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, needs more than a little indulgence for super-hero physical deeds. And he needs to avoid like the plague the grin that made him a box office mega-star. But the crucial thing Childs' readers should have ceded is that movie stars of Cruise's heft and duration have a kind of built-in spiritual size that makes them physically bigger when they're onscreen in the right movie. We believe outrageous feats onscreen because we've seen them do so many other things already.

When Cary Grant was 55, we believed that he could outrun a crop-dusting airplane in Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" simply because he was Cary Grant.

Jack Reacher isn't exactly Hitchcock but it's a good action thriller and it's exactly the kind of movie (among others) Cruise should be making now. His onscreen, all-too-boyish grin full of gleaming white teeth is saved for the final scene. The role is almost completely unsmiling. Its two poles are stone and sorrow.

He plays an ex-Army commander (a major) who's helping clear his Army successor, who's as much a good-guy thug as he is, only female (she's played by Cobie Smulders). A lot of after-you-alphonse and it's-my-turn stuff goes back and forth between them and causes gender friction. Each wants to be lead investigator; each wants to pound bad guys into insensibility. It's all quite watchable.

The third leg of the plot is about a 16-year-old who either may or may not be Reacher's daughter but who definitely needs protection whenever she's around him (Danika Yarosh, with an ever-ready pout).

That's one very plausible thing that a smart, enduring mega-star like Cruise should do at the age of 54 (which, by the way, makes him a year younger than George Clooney and 18 months older than Brad Pitt.) His director here is his "Last Samurai" director Edward Zwick. Zwick's old TV writing partner from "thirtysomething," Marshall Herskovitz wrote the script with Zwick and the director of the first "Reacher" movie Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for "The Usual Suspects."

It's not the best action thriller you'll see all year but I like these Cruise Reacher movies a whole lot more than the much gaudier and stunt-filled "Mission Impossible" things. If you must know.



"Jack Reacher: Never Go Back"

Three out of four stars.

Starring: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Aldis Hodge, Danika Yarosh

Director: Edward Zwick

Running time: 118 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for violent action, bloody images, language.

The lowdown: Brutal ex-military wanderer helps out a soldier accused of crime.



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