Marketing "one of the more enduring action heroes on the American landscape" has proved problematic.
Jack Reacher, the itinerant head-butting hero of Lee Child's best-selling series of crime thrillers, has finally made it to the big screen. An adaptation of Child's 2005 novel "One Shot," retitled "Jack Reacher," written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie and starring Tom Cruise, opened Friday.
What took them so long? The Reacher books have been appearing yearly since 1997, and if ever a literary property seemed a no-brainer for the movies, it's this one. The books have a strong, original central character and taut, linear narratives, full of action and incident; they often feature strong female characters and are surprisingly popular among women; and there are lots of them -- 17 titles so far, outnumbering even the original James Bond novels.
It is a franchise built around a former military policeman roaming the United States utterly without baggage, personal or otherwise, righting wrongs according to his own no-nonsense code of justice. Writing in the New York Times, Janet Maslin called Reacher "one of the most enduring action heroes on the American landscape."
McQuarrie, who has worked on several Cruise-related projects (including "Valkyrie," which he wrote with Nathan Alexander and produced, and "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol," for which he did some revisions), knows his way around Hollywood and has a very simple explanation for why it took so long to get a Reacher film made. "There are no transforming robots," he said in a phone interview. "There is no paranormal activity."
He added: "The problem is that Jack Reacher is not 22, and he doesn't have superpowers. He appears in novels that are detective thrillers, and that's a sort of movie they don't make anymore. How do you market it?"
Child, who worked as a television director and producer in England before becoming a novelist, also knows his way around show business. Not long ago, stretching out his long legs on a coffee table in the New York City apartment he uses as a writing studio, he leaned back in a chair, and, as if giving a PowerPoint presentation, suggested three reasons the Reacher books might be an awkward fit for the movies.
The first reason is -- never mind, we'll come back to the first reason. The second reason is that the books are less eventful -- or less cinematically eventful -- than they seem, because a lot of the action takes place inside Reacher's head. "His thought processes, his quirks, his intuitions are what make him interesting," Child said. "How do you get that out of his head and onto the screen?"
The third reason has to do with the stubborn nature of the character. "In Hollywood they have these unshakable conclusions," he said. "And one of them is that a character must have an arc, must go for a journey and learn something, must be different at the end. But Reacher does none of that. He never changes. He doesn't learn anything, because he knows it all from the beginning."
Even so, there was no lack of Hollywood interest. The books have been under option to one studio or another since the first one was published 15 years ago. But nothing happened until Cruise and Paramount came along in 2005, after "One Shot" came out. Child said he was impressed by everyone involved, especially McQuarrie, whose screenplay he called "outstanding." "I bet it's the least altered first draft ever," he said. "This is not starry eyes. I made my living amongst these wolves for years, and I can tell the good from the bad."
McQuarrie pointed out that while he has had some success as a screenwriter (his script for "The Usual Suspects" won an Oscar in 1996), he was far from a sure bet as a director, and his budget was far from large. Until now he had made only one other film, "The Way of the Gun," which came out in 2000 and, despite some good reviews, fizzled at the box office.
He began working on "Jack Reacher" without a lot of confidence that the movie would ever be made. "I didn't think they were thinking, 'Yes!'" he said. "I think they were thinking, 'Good luck with that one.'"
He didn't necessarily write the script with Cruise in mind, he added, but once Cruise decided to play Reacher, the project suddenly became "something they didn't have a reason to say no to."
This brings us back to Child's Reason No. 1, which is the problem of casting a Reacher movie. As fictional characters go, Reacher is a little underspecified, which makes readers feel so proprietary about him: In our own heads, we help create the character. But the one thing everyone knows about Reacher is that he is big -- 6 feet 5 and 250 pounds or so -- and not bad looking, exactly, but a little intimidating. One of his many female friends in the books describes him as a condom stuffed with walnuts. When word got out that Cruise, who is neither tall nor walnutlike, had agreed to star in the movie, many of Child's fans became apoplectic. "I know Jack Reacher, and Tom Cruise is no Jack Reacher," one of them commented online.
Child said he understood his readers' concerns and was grateful they cared so much. "That's the gold standard for a writer -- to create a character that inspires such passion," he said, but he pointed out that Reacher wasn't just about size. "There's also the menace, the intelligence, the silent, contemplative nature," he said. Child, whose real name is Jim Grant and who is himself 6 feet 5, laughed and added: "Besides, no one in Hollywood is tall. In that whole ZIP code they're all small people. Even people you think are big are not big."
McQuarrie agreed. "When has there ever been a 6-5, blond-haired, blue-eyed American actor?" he said. "He's never existed, ever. So you're out of the gate accepting compromise. There's a very exclusive club of people who could play Jack Reacher, and a lot of them are playing characters like Jack Reacher."
The list gets smaller, he went on, when you factor in some of Reacher's other qualities, like his mental lightness and acuity, and narrows still more when you need an actor with the clout to get the movie made for a certain budget. "At the end there's only one guy," he said. "Without Tom you wouldn't have the movie, and you wouldn't have the movie the way you have it. Tom fiercely defended what makes Reacher Reacher -- the brutality, the complexity -- the things that usually fall victim in the first round of studio development."
Speaking from England, where he was filming "All You Need Is Kill," Cruise laughed when asked about his lack of resemblance to Reacher. "I just didn't worry about it," he said. "I looked at the book and I thought, 'This is a character.' What I liked is that he's a sort of analog character in a digital world."
He added: "The height, the size -- those are characteristics, not a character. I was more worried about things like the fight scenes: How do we get the right style? How do I play that character?"
In the movie Child appears in a cameo as a police desk sergeant returning to Reacher his sole possession, a toothbrush, and he said he saw that scene as a symbolic passing of the baton -- author handing off to actor. "You can say, 'Oh, you would say that, wouldn't you?'" he said. "But I'm not that guy. If I didn't like it, I would say so, loud and clear. If they screwed up, I would burn their house down."
No one associated with "Jack Reacher" wants to talk too much about a sequel, for fear of jinxing things, but if this movie works, there will almost certainly be others, and Cruise is eager to appear in them.
"That's the beauty of it," McQuarrie said. "If it works, then they have to make more. Then we are the transforming robots."