Like its namesake antihero, "Jack Reacher" has hefty challenges to overcome from the get-go.

First, there's the backlash from devotees of the Lee Child fiction series on which it's based, who whine that Tom Cruise is too diminutive to play the fullback-sized maverick of the books. Then, in the opening sequence, a chillingly efficient sniper picks off several innocent pedestrians one by one, evoking squirm-inducing images of the Newtown school massacre.

But as he can do in his sleep by now, Cruise puts on his tough face and quickly takes command of the screen as Reacher, a military MP turned maverick homicide investigator, a nomad who can only be found when he damn well wants to be. By playing Reacher as lithe bantam rooster rather than lumbering battering ram, Cruise is actually more fun to watch fight than a large man would be -- a good thing, because there's a whole lot of fisticuffs and even a little forehead-banging to get through before Reacher can catch his breath.

The accused sniper, who has gotten away with a similar spree before under different circumstances, asks the cops to get Reacher, a puzzling move as Reacher is aware of his earlier crime. Reacher shows up and begins investigating.

After a few sidetracks, including handily wasting five guys who pick a fight with him in a bar and a visit to a shooting range run by an ex-Marine (Robert Duvall), Reacher starts doubting the sniper's guilt and goes on the hunt for the real culprits, and their motives.

Director Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote the Cruise film "Valkyrie" and is slated to write "Mission: Impossible 5," knows how to get the best from the star, taking him to the edge of over-the-top. Shot in Pittsburgh -- a steely backdrop for a steely guy who still turns in a mean shirtless scene at 50 -- the movie is muscle-car chase-scene Chevy heaven, with Reacher tearing around in a cherry vintage Chevelle.

As the alleged sniper's defense attorney Helen, Rosamund Pike ("Pride and Prejudice") is given more to do than the usual female prop, and it doesn't even include sex -- even when facing imminent, violent death, Helen somehow keeps her hose-sheathed knees together. Richard Jenkins (what hasn't he been in?), who plays her D.A. daddy, is always a pleasure, whether sincere or sinister (which one he is here is in doubt).

Reacher may be "an analog man in a digital world," as Cruise told David Letterman the other night, but he's also an occasional quipster, tossing off understated one-liners that elevate the otherwise standard dialogue.

More laughs, though unintentional, ensue from the odd casting of renowned director Werner Herzog as a bad guy nicknamed "The Zec," who earned his cred by biting off the fingers of his left hand while imprisoned in Siberia. "Think you're tough? I made tapas out of my own knuckles!" Kidding, but he does deliver cringers like "You say nothing, but I see defiance in your eyes." The esteemed director may now cross "Play cartoonish Bond villain" off his bucket list.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046