2012’s Jack Reacher is not the type of film that most people will be expecting. Marketed as a pure action fiesta, movie-goers will likely watch the film anticipating an unofficial Mission: Impossible sequel featuring Tom Cruise the generic action hero. But, as those familiar with Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books will be aware, the movie is in fact a mystery/thriller more concerned with intrigue and plot twists than outright violence. Though it falls short of its potential, Jack Reacher is a fun, handsomely mounted flick which delivers wholesome escapist thriller entertainment the likes of which we only occasionally see done well (it’s a lot better than Alex Cross).

When unhinged Iraq War veteran James Barr (Sikora) is framed for a vicious sniper rampage that took the lives of five people, his one request is to get Jack Reacher (Cruise). A mysterious drifter now living off the grid, Reacher is a former army investigator, and he rides into town as soon as he hears of Barr’s arrest. Though Reacher assumes Barr is guilty due to the vet’s previous actions, he begins to dig deeper into the clues with Barr’s lawyer Helen (Pike), revealing a more intricate plot. As he works through suspects and conducts his own investigation, Reacher soon comes up against brutal enforcer Charlie (Courtney) and his fingerless boss The Zec (Herzog).

Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay is based on Lee Child’s novel One Shot. The translation to the screen is for the most part successful, with plenty of engaging dialogue and with McQuarrie keeping the story interesting throughout. Pacing is a strong suit, as there are no unnecessary subplots to weigh the film down. Jack Reacher is very no-nonsense, with the titular character consistently moving from Point A to Point B, only occasionally slowing down to present Helen with his findings and thus let the audience catch up on all the evidence. However, the narrative is so sophisticated and dense that it would seem McQuarrie was unsure about how to handle it. Conspiracies are uncovered and shady company dealings are brought forth, but McQuarrie opts for the easy way out, eventually simplifying the equation down to people shooting one another. Those involved in the conspiracy end up dead, of course, but how much can be proved in court to justify the killings? Can the company behind the conspiracy be taken to task, or has Reacher done them a favour by eliminating the pawns who did all the dirty work? A lot needs to be wrapped up after the climax, and McQuarrie doesn’t even try to resolve it, cutting the film off instead.

McQuarrie’s regular day job is as a screenwriter extraordinaire, with credits like the Oscar-winning The Usual Suspects and 2008’s Valkyrie to his name. Jack Reacher is only his second directorial effort; he first helmed The Way of the Gun twelve years ago. Despite his scratchy filmmaking credentials, his handling of Jack Reacher is slick and accomplished, building intrigue and staging action sequences with equal assurance. Most impressive is the opening sniper massacre, a harrowing and gripping set-piece that begins the film with no dialogue and utmost tension. Shot in 35mm film by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, this is a good-looking, old-fashioned action-thriller, with every fight and conflict captured through steady camera set-ups, smooth editing and several extended shots. Cruise did the majority of his own stunts, adding realism and excitement to the set-pieces. Of particular note is a loud, intense car chase, and a vicious showdown between Reacher and Charlie. The action may be out-of-place after so much patient build-up, but at least it’s skilful and entertaining.

Internet controversy came thick and fast when Cruise was cast as Reacher. In the books, Reacher is described as a tall, muscular behemoth with short blonde hair, making the role appropriate for someone like Dwayne Johnson or Dolph Lundgren. It would’ve been interesting to see a more faithful screen iteration of Reacher, but Cruise makes it work; he’s both brutal and charming. The role is gruffer than the characters Cruise usually plays, and the star embraced the chance to go against his typecast persona, replacing his trademark smile with steely determination and tremendous ferocity. Cruise is now fifty years old, but he doesn’t look a day over forty. Anyone could have played the role of lawyer Helen, but Rosamund Pike is a good pick, beautiful and believable. The dependable Richard Jenkins also impresses as the District Attorney, while Jai Courtney makes for a credible brute. What really boosts the film, though, is the casting of German filmmaker Werner Herzog as The Zec. He gets limited screen-time, but he’s memorably sinister. Also of note is Robert Duvall, who shares great chemistry with Cruise.

Jack Reacher entered cinemas at an awkward time for American audiences. Arriving not long after the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, many may feel uncomfortable watching the sniper slaughter, in which innocents are killed in cold blood. This is not a criticism of the film and it’s not McQuarrie’s fault at all, but sensitive movie-goers should be wary of the content. In the end, Jack Reacher is two-thirds of a great thriller and one-third of a standard, generic action film. It had the potential to be a more sophisticated, Oscar-grade flick, but the finished film is nevertheless enjoyable as popcorn entertainment. It’s evident that Cruise is aiming for another film franchise here, as there are several other Jack Reacher books that can be adapted if Paramount deems this endeavour to be successful enough. And there’s no problem with that – I would happily pay to see further adventures of Cruise as Reacher.