Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (Photo: Paramount)

★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Edward Zwick
STARS Tom Cruise, Colbie Smulders

It’s a shame Popstar arrived in theaters first, because a better title for Jack Reacher: Never Go Back would have been Jack Reacher: Never Stop Never Stopping. Here’s Tom Cruise once again showing he has no intention of issuing a cease-and-desist on properties that present him in the absolute best light possible: saintly, heroic, indestructible, and able to leap cavernous plotholes in a single bound.

Here’s the thing about 2012’s Jack Reacher, the first picture based on one of Lee Child’s popular novels: While it made “only” $80 million stateside (pocket change for a superstar whose films usually cross the $100 million line), it was actually a good fit for Cruise, allowing him to play his strong and silent routine in the service of a twisty and gripping thriller populated with interesting characters and even more interesting casting choices (Werner Herzog as the villain!). But all such viewing niceties have fallen by the wayside for this dreary sequel, which seems to exist for the sole purpose of serving as a vanity project for its aging star (who also produced). The first film featured the sweet line-up of Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, David Oyewolo and Robert Duvall — clearly, that was too much A-list talent taking the spotlight away from Cruise, so this one only offers that actress who pops up in Marvel movies now and then.

Said actress, Colbie Smulders, is the one whose character gets the narrative ball rolling for Reacher, as she’s framed for espionage and wrongly imprisoned. No problem for our hero, who finds that breaking her out of jail is no more difficult than flipping a light switch and proceeds to do so in about the same amount of time it takes the rest of us to comb our hair. Now on the run, the pair are accompanied by a teenage girl (Danika Yarosh) who may or may not be Reacher’s daughter from a long-ago tryst.

JR:NGB manages to be both ludicrous and lethargic, always a deadly one-two punch. The principal villains (a government official and a skilled assassin known as — insert guffaw here — The Hunter) are both so nondescript that I honestly wouldn’t be able to pick the actors playing them out of a police lineup. Even Cruise seems bored, going through the sort of mechanical, megalomaniacal moves that thankfully haven’t yet crippled the sturdy Mission: Impossible franchise. If he doesn’t care about this project, why should we?

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