It pains me to report that with Jack Reacher, Tom Cruise has confirmed his status as the Charlton Heston of the 21st Century.  To wit: from 1950 to 1970, Heston established himself as one of cinema’s most iconic movie stars.  His choices weren’t always unimpeachable (The Greatest Story Ever Told, anybody), though for every stinker, he’d make a Ben-Hur and a Touch of Evil.  You’d be hard-pressed to find another giant celebrity who took so many risks with his own image; yes, his default pose might have been noble, righteous Moses from The Ten Commandments, but that grandeur could just as easily curdle into delusional mania – the title character in Major Dundee – or self-doubting regret – his lovely, heartbreaking turn as Will Penny.

After 1970, things took a turn.  I don’t know if he started believing his own hype, or if his advancing years made him paranoid about disappearing from the limelight and letting some young buck unseat him, but Heston just started gobbling up any and all projects, no matter how terrible they might have been.  That’s not to say he completely stopped doing good work – his performances in the two Three Musketeers pictures and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet are remarkably subtle and nuanced – but by and large, stinkers like The Omega Man, Earthquake, Solar Crisis, and Alaska became the norm.  It’s the damndest thing – Heston made so many ill-conceived, uninspired pictures (Airport 1975, anyone?) that he should have irrevocably damaged his brand, yet he never stumbled into the DTV or made-for-TV ghetto the way people like Mickey Rourke or Val Kilmer have.  He was every inch a movie star, and he maintained that allure even when his movies stopped being worthy of his persona.

So it goes with Tom Cruise.  From 1981 to 2005, Cruise was our greatest movie star.  He could do entertaining (Mission: Impossible, Minority Report); he could do dramatic (Magnolia, Born on the Fourth of July); hell, sometimes he’d even do both once (Collateral, Interview with the Vampire).  Cruise was so magnetic that you could easily overlook his…ahem, personal concerns (just as the best of Heston could overshadow his radical political leanings).  However, after his underrated work in 2005’s War of the Worlds (and the chair-jumping that accompanied said film), something broke, and like Heston, Cruise started applying his trademark intensity to films that didn’t deserve it.  The game became preserving his image rather than capitalizing on it, with movies like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Knight and Day, and Oblivion doing little to expand his gifts.  This guy should be working with the Coen Brothers, with Wes Anderson, with Christopher Nolan.  Instead, he’s juicing his hair and bossing around less capable directors just so his Teflon smile won’t look diminished.

And Jack Reacher represents the nadir of these efforts.  Reacher isn’t a character; he’s an aggregate of all the badass qualities that Cruise desperately wants viewers to see in him.  Reacher isn’t just an Army investigator, he’s the BEST Army investigator, a man so just and unerring in his procedural approach (he has a photographic memory, he can place himself in any crime scene, he blah blah blah) that his military superiors discharged him ‘cause he made them look bad.  He’s a brawler capable of psychologically and physically devastating any opponents who try to defeat him, and he’s also a WORLD-CLASS marksman better than most trained snipers.  Plus, Reacher’s so sexually appealing that every woman in the movie reacts to him like he secretes Spanish Fly and Axe Body Spray; even the picture’s no-nonsense leading lady (Rosamund Pike) starts stumbling over her words and wearing a push-up bra when Reacher enters her life.

The problem is, all the efforts to make Reacher seem perfect only serve to underscore what a flat, unappealing character he is.  There’s no one there behind the skills, and that’s a new low for Tom, considering how good he was at bringing human depths to his past action heroes.  Think Maverick in Top Gun or Nathan Algren in The Last Samurai: these guys were capable of great heroism, but they also had to struggle with near-crippling character defects.  A little internal conflict is good for the soul, and Reacher has none.

Even his lone “issue” – he’s a drifter who eschews human contact for the open road – seems ideal within the context of the film; Reacher is free to wander from state to state righting wrongs, and he doesn’t have to suffer through the kind of emotional strife we see in Pike and Richard Jenkins’ antagonistic father-daughter relationship (in another strike against Jack Reacher, Jenkins is totally wasted – during his scant screen-time, he’s a red herring).  In the past, Critics have unfairly accused Cruise of playing an automaton in his action movies, but Jack Reacher takes the cake: he’s a walking plot device.

This lack of character development wouldn’t matter is the film were more entertaining.  But it isn’t.  Now, for its first hour, Jack Reacher is serviceable – not great, but a solid rental for a rainy afternoon.  Writer/director Chris McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie) starts things off with a chilling, near-wordless sniper sequence, detailing two meticulous processes: a sunglassed killer targeting five people outside of Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, and the lead police detective (David Oweloyo) following the physical evidence to disturbed Iraqi war veteran James Barr (Joseph Sikora).

It never gets as good as this opening twenty minutes – Reacher’s subsequent investigation of Barr has all the freshness and surprise of a “Banacek” episode – though McQuarrie keeps things rolling along with his snappy pulp dialogue and a refreshingly blunt approach to combat.  A brawl between Reacher and five bar thugs plays out in long takes, and the violence, whether here or in any of the other shootings/beatings, comes in concentrated, unpretty bursts.  Credit must go where credit’s due.  McQuarrie pulls off one wholly original action beat; two hired thugs try to kill Reacher in a tiny bathroom, but they end up unintentionally destroying everything in the bathroom except Reacher, who gets the upper hand and uses the head of one killer to beat the other killer senseless.  It’s good stuff, brutal, exciting, and funny.

And then McQuarrie stops the movie cold at the midpoint to let Cruise and Pike explain the decidedly untwisty plot for all those in the cheap seats, and the movie never recovers.  The scene goes on for what feels like four days, and its slackness infects everything that follows, from a low-stakes, low-impact car chase between Reacher and the cops (would you believe that Jack gets framed for murder at one point?) to an ending shootout in a quarry with no blood and even less tension – it works like the rote “bad guys stand in a line to let the hero kill them” finales of old Schwarzenegger movies like Red Heat or Commando.  Worse, McQuarrie scores big demerits for wasting both Werner Herzog (who’s barely in the film as Reacher’s main nemesis) and Robert Duvall (who shows up and mugs unbearably as Reacher’s third-act ally).

And it all comes back to Cruise.  Because he never seems vulnerable, because there’s nothing compelling about his character, the whole film feels like a franchise setup: “You know he’ll be fine, so see you in 2014 for Jack Reacher 2!”  Even the Mission: Impossible movies are less nakedly calculated (slightly less).  I don’t doubt that Cruise won’t be good again – he’s too talented.  But so was Charlton Heston, and he thought it prudent to show up for the 2001 Planet of the Apes remake.  We should hold our movie stars to higher standards; we certainly can’t count on them to do so.

Say what you will about the film itself, but Paramount’s Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack looks terrific.  Caleb Deschanel’s celluloid photography is crisp and textured, and the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track comes roaring to life during the film’s many action setpieces.

Features are limited but solid.  Cruise and McQuarrie deliver a surprisingly informative audio commentary (I say “surprising” because most of the commentaries featuring Cruise tend towards excessive glad-handing); composer Joe Kraemer hosts an isolated score track; and there are three reasonably meaty behind-the-scenes documentaries: “When the Man Comes Around,” You Do Not Mess with Jack Reacher: Combat & Weapons,” and “The Reacher Phenomenon,” which delves into Lee Child’s literary franchise.

Jack Reacher streets on May 7th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Culture Movie Review: Good Action Doesn’t Quite Make JACK REACHER Seem Unique