The best thing about the new Reacher series on Prime Video? It is 100% Tom Cruise free. In 2012, Tom Cruise brought Lee Child’s Jack Reacher character to the big screen. Reacher, as even his mother calls him, is an oversized ex-military cop, featured in dozens of novels and short stories. Reacher wanders around the country and finds himself in violent conflict with corrupt small-town cops, corrupt industrialists, and corrupt white supremacists. Even if you are not a fan of the books, the absurdity of the, shall we say, fun-sized Tom Cruise playing a character whose most notable characteristic is being large was a major liability for the two movies Cruise made.
Adapting a beloved book series for movies or TV is an inherently fraught process, because your most passionate audience is the one that is the least likely to be happy with the choices any producer and director make in visualizing the book. For the Amazon TV show (versus the two feature film adaptations), the financial stakes are lower, and it’s possible to find a protagonist who is more suitable to the character, even if less recognizable to mass audiences. Alan Ritchson, the new Reacher, has previous credits, including roles in the Hunger Games and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchises. More importantly, he is 6’ 2”, and, as they say, yoked.
I am not privy to the financial details of either the TV show or the two Reacher movies. I do know that they are based on books that fit squarely in the action genre, and as a rule, movies in that category have big budgets and big stars. Before the two Tom Cruise Reacher movies, I would have imagined someone like Vinnie “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” Jones as Reacher, so it was jarring to see the wee Tom Cruise dressed up like Reacher. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine opening a $60 million dollar feature like the first Reacher movie without a star of Cruise’s magnitude to give it momentum at the box office – even if it would not sit well with fans of the book.
There are any number of challenges involved in adapting a cherished genre fiction franchise for the screen, or more to the point, it is easy to alienate your core audience of fans of the books. One pitfall is not respecting the chronology of the books. The creators of the Harry Potter franchise understood this, and the movies follow the order of the books. On the other hand, the 2003 adaptation of the much beloved Aubrey-Maturin series of naval adventures set in the early 19th century, Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World, was a mishmash of elements of three of the 21 novels in the series. I don’t know if more fealty to the structure of the source material would have propelled this one and done adaptation, but as a fan of those novels, I felt let down by the movies.
For reasons known to himself, Cruise started with an adaptation of One Shot, the ninth Reacher novel in the series; the second film with Cruise as Reacher was adapted from Never Go Back, the eighteenth book in the series. For Reacher fans hoping that all the novels might see the big screen, this sort of cherry-picking was a disappointment. The new Reacher, reassuringly, begins at the beginning, with Killing Floor, the first novel in the series. It is hard to imagine that all the Reacher novels will be adapted in this way, but it feels more respectful to the source material.
The absence of Tom Cruise is necessary, but not sufficient, to make the new Reacher the delight that it is. This Reacher is what we call a Unit. I winced a little bit when I learned that Ritchson was an ex-Abercrombie model, which is so not Reacher, but he ambles through his scenes with just the right amount of chill Dr. Manhattan/Thanos energy to make the multiple fight scenes where he kicks multiple dudes’ butts plausible.
More importantly, especially for the casual viewer, the show offers non-Reacher characters who are, honestly, more compelling than many of the supporting characters in Child’s books. In the gender-swapped role of Officer Roscoe, Willa Fitzgerald has attracted enough fans of her own that she appears sans Reacher in promos for the show, and there is talk of a spinoff. More quietly, Malcolm Goodwin, as an ex-Boston Police detective starting a new life in Georgia, adds a depth to the narrative that is missing from what Child delivers in the original.
If there are more seasons of Reacher, the very premise of the novels will make it challenging to maintain a TV series over multiple seasons. With few exceptions, each Reacher story begins with him entering a new place by himself, and ends with him leaving by himself. There are very few characters besides Reacher who appear in more than one story, so it’s hard to develop the kind of delightful supporting cast that made, say, Justified such a compelling watch. Maria Sten, as Reacher’s ex-MP colleague, brings some heat in this season, and appears in multiple novels, so Reacher might not be entirely on his own in season 2. Having escaped from the clutches of Tom Cruise, it will be interesting to see if Reacher can survive the foibles of its own protagonist.
Jonathan Beecher Field was born in New England, educated in the Midwest, and teaches in the South. He Tweets professionally as @ThatJBF, and unprofessionally as @TheGurglingCod. He also sometimes writes for Avidly and Common-Place.
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‘Reacher’ Needed A Bigger Star Than Tom Cruise To Reach Its Full Potential