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Jack Reacher returns to the headquarters of his old unit, only to find out he's now accused of a 16-year-old homicide.

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Jack Reacher: Never Go Back movie full length review - well... It's better than The Accountant

The thing about Tom Cruise is that he's always ready to go, up for everything and giving ten thousand percent.

That laser-focused intensity can be a bit much sometimes (Cruise is never funnier than when the joke is on him and never worse than when he's trying to be funny) but it's served him well in his unexpected, mid-life decision to make himself over into the American Jackie Chan. Back in the eighties and nineties Tom Cruise used to headline Oscar contenders. These days he's doing his own stunts in punchy, populist action pictures you go see with your uncles.

Cruise never half-asses it, though. The Missions: Impossibles Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation are modern classics of go-for-broke showmanship, ditto his prankishly clever sci-fi Groundhog Day by way of Normandy, Edge Of Tomorrow. Even 2012's lo-fi bruiser Jack Reacher had the hardscrabble appeal of an old Walter Hill picture, complete with one hell of a car chase. Alas, I wish I could say the same for its sequel.

Given Cruise's reputation for quality control, the most surprising thing about Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is just how lousy it is. This is a shoddy, cheap-looking affair lacking any of the polished production values or death-defying stunt sequences we've come to expect from Tom Cruise movies. It takes place mainly in nondescript, soundstage motel rooms and in front of green-screens so unconvincing that I looked up the budget as soon as I got home and now I'm wondering where Paramount's $96 million went. This thing could pass for a sweeps-week episode of NCIS.

The first Jack Reacher was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who has since been promoted to run the Mission: Impossible franchise for Cruise, while Reacher duty has fallen into the less-than-capable hands of Edward Zwick, a prestige picture gasbag whose The Last Samurai was one of the only Tom Cruise movies I ever actively hated. Zwick's enlisted his longtime TV co-writer from thirtysomething and My So-Called Life, Marshall Herskovitz, to re-write a screenplay by Richard Wenk based on one of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels that I probably must have read but can't tell you for sure.

(Seriously, I zipped through like a dozen of these one summer and they're so much fun and you forget them the very next day. Child's books all sort of of bleed together and the titles are so generic, I only stopped picking them up when I realized I have no idea anymore which ones I've read.) Cruise, never more comfortable than when playing a Nietzschean Superman, returns as the leather-jacketed drifter, an ex-Military Police investigator going Greyhound from town to town, insulting authority figures and righting wrongs. We catch up with him in the midst of a phone flirtation with his replacement MP, Major Turner (Cobie Smulders) but their date night is abruptly canceled when she's arrested for espionage.

Of course she's been framed. It's all part of a resoundingly uninteresting and twist-deprived mystery involving a team of Halliburton-esque contractors, led by a Central Casting villain billed only as The Hunter and played by Patrick Heusinger with about that much specificity. (The first film had Werner Herzog as the bad guy. Obviously an impossible act to follow, but maybe somebody could have at least tried?) A not-bad sequence finds Reacher busting Turner out of the brig, and we're on the lam with a distinct absence of immediacy.

The two are soon saddled with Samantha (Danika Yarosh), a petulant fifteen-year-old who might-or-might-not be Reacher's daughter from a half-remembered assignation. There are hints here of a screwball, surrogate-family comedy, with Cruise and Smulders as a couple of hard-ass, hilariously unfit parents who can bust heads with the best of them but haven't the slightest idea how to talk to a teenage girl. Cruise in particular is working about five levels above the material, suffusing Reacher's comically incompetent attempts to act like a dad with an undercurrent of yearning that screams out for a better movie.

Cobie Smulders falls neatly into the Paula Patton/Emily Blunt/Rebecca Ferguson role of Cruise's ass-kicking female foil, and though he can't ever seem to muster up much chemistry with any of them it's still very cool to see an action star always yielding the floor to powerful women. Smulders is amusingly gruff and I liked watching the two of them together, even when the filmmakers try to cheat Cruise's height so much in their motel room scenes that it looks like he's standing on the bed.

But none of the maybe-daughter stuff even goes anywhere and I still can't believe how pedestrian these action sequences are. Cruise has one or two fun moments when he gets to punch people out, but nothing memorable like the fight outside the bar or that close-quarters bathroom brawl in the first film. I assumed this movie couldn't possibly look hackier and more worn-out than the airport tarmac plot revelations, and then Zwick throws in a New Orleans rooftop climax that looks like it was shot on a backlot in Burbank. Sorry, but once you've seen Tom Cruise hanging from the Burj Khalifa watching him almost fall off a cheap set left over from an eighties cop show isn't exactly wow material.

The nicest thing I can say about Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is that it's better than The Accountant.