Amazon has carved out a lane for itself in the world of military and crime adaptations. The streaming service has received critical acclaim with its John Krasinski-starring Jack Ryan series, based on the beloved Tom Clancy novels. That success was parlayed into Without Remorse, a feature film starring Michael B. Jordan as Clancy's second-most famous literary character. Amazon is now turning to the work of Lee Child to adapt another mystery icon: Jack Reacher. Like Jack Ryan, Reacher is in very capable hands, as star Alan Ritchson delivers a career-best performance in a role he feels born to play.
Ritchson stars as Reacher's titular hero, a former military operative currently wandering his way across the country, towering over everyone he meets. When he arrives in the small town of Margrave, Georgia, Reacher is immediately arrested for a murder that took place the previous night. He quickly gets caught up in a mysterious web of small-town lies, all leading to a much bigger criminal conspiracy. While most of Margrave sees Reacher as an outsider, he earns the trust of young police officer Roscoe (Willa Fitzgerald), who grew up in Margrave, and Detective Finlay (Malcolm Goodwin), a transplant from Boston. The three black sheep band together to uncover the devastating secrets buried beneath the town's seemingly good nature and bring down a criminal empire before more bodies are sent to the morgue.
The character of Jack Reacher has been adapted before, with Tom Cruise portraying the fictional hero in two feature films. A star of Cruise's caliber is a tough act to follow, but Ritchson shines in what is a much more authentic portrayal of Lee Child's creation. Not only does Ritchson match the massive description of the character from the novels, he also has the ability to bring warmth to a character that has some naturally standoffish tendencies. Jack Reacher should be calculated and somewhat cold, but it's his ability to still find compassion and human connection that makes him such a compelling protagonist, a trait that Cruise's version had a much more difficult time achieving.
Ritchson has been waiting for a role like Jack Reacher. He's always been an enormous physical specimen, and he has always been a skilled technician of comedic timing. Those traits often got him cast as the over-the-top manchild, an archetype Ritchson has been hilariously effective at portraying. He stole every scene of Blue Mountain State as dim-witted linebacker Thad Castle. His guest spots on sitcoms like New Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine were equally hilarious. When Ritchson did get his chances to take on more serious fare, his comedic talents were all but removed. Reacher finally gives Ritchson a showcase for all of his talents; he's able to create layers to his character, using his size as just one tool in his arsenal. He's given the chance to be very funny by playing off of his co-stars and utilizing his skill of subtlety. This is the showcase Ritchson has long needed and he makes the most of it.
Most of the time, Reacher is able to keep pace with its star's talents. The scripts stick close to the tone of Child's work, bringing the small-town vibes to a devastating and dangerous story, tossing in just enough humor to keep a hint of levity throughout. Tonally, it strikes a similar chord to that of Justified, an easy-going murder mystery that turns on the thrills when it needs to. Reacher lacks Justified's consistency, though. There are plenty of times over the course of its eight-episode debut season that things get hokey, for lack of a better word. The tone collapses in on itself from time to time, specifically when Reacher isn't on screen, causing you to wonder just how invested you are. Fortunately, those moments never last, and the series makes quick work of earning your trust back with a great action set piece or a dynamite back-and-forth between Ritchson and Goodwin (who is every bit as effective in his role as his scene partner).
While there may be some inconsistencies here and there, Reacher works because it's a series that knows exactly what it is. Nick Santora and his team never try to reinvent any wheels or break any new ground. Reacher never feels like it's competing to be the next Big Thing in the era of Peak TV. It's a simple and largely straightforward crime thriller that is content with being just that. It's surprising just how far confidence in an identity can carry a series.
That confidence extends to the release method of the series itself, not just what it's doing on-screen. The debate between weekly and binge-release models is more prevalent than ever. You can argue about the two strategies until the cows come home, but at the end of the day, it should always be examined on a case-by-case basis. Amazon is following the binge-release model with Reacher, dropping all eight episodes at once, but the creative team was clearly aware of that when putting the series together. Reacher uses its release model to its advantage, giving each episode its own flavor while serving the greater story, never trying to leave you with cliffhangers or questions. The way the mystery plays out, and the speed at which the plot moves forward, makes Reacher a delightful weekend binge-watch. This show wouldn't be nearly as effective or enjoyable as a weekly release.
Reacher isn't going to light the television world on fire, but it doesn't have to, so it never tries. It delivers its story with precision and allows you to spend real time with some enjoyable characters. Had Ritchson not been up to the task, or even just been fine in the lead role, it likely would've fallen apart. Reacher lives and dies on the massive shoulders of its star and, fortunately, Ritchson has never been better.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Reacher is set to debut on Amazon Prime Video on February 4th.