Bottled Lightning – Jack Reacher, Larceny and Lessons for Writers

I have a confession to make.

I was a Chris McQuarrie fan before I was a Lee Child fan.
Who’s Chris McQuarrie?
Some of you may have heard of a little movie called The Way of The Gun. It had a small theatrical release and nobody went to see it. I did. I was first in the line for tickets. This was because the movie was written and directed by McQuarrie. And I thought, and still think, that McQuarrie is a genius. The first script he got produced was for a little film he wanted to make with his buddy, Bryan Singer. That script was The Usual Suspects which earned him the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The Writers Guild of America voted the screenplay for The Usual Suspects at #35 on the list of best screenplays of all time. The Usual Suspects is a heist movie, the title comes from a line in Casablanca and most of the main characters take their names from guys that McQuarrie worked with in a legal firm.
The Way of The Gun has its flaws, it’s not perfect, but it’s vastly underrated. Two criminals, played by Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro, plan to kidnap the surrogate mother who is carrying a child for a wealthy couple and hold her to ransom. They get a lot more than they bargained for. It’s a modern day Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid with a final shootout that rivals The Wild Bunch. One of the things I love about The Way of The Gun is the interaction between Phillippe and Del Toro. A lot of their communication is non-verbal: a wink, a nod, and all the time you can see them thinking their way through the problems thrown at them. It’s an incredible piece of writing and film making and James Caan is superb in this film – some of his best work is on screen here.
When I heard Lee Child’s Jack Reacher was going to be made into a movie, I secretly prayed that McQuarrie would write and direct it.
He did.
I thought there would be no-one better to capture Reacher on screen. And you know what? He does it. He nails the heart of that character.
I will admit to being surprised at Tom Cruise being cast as Jack Reacher. It’s a little like casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as the lead in a biopic on Charlie Chaplin.
I’ve been in the room when Lee Child discussed this and I agree with him that there are not a lot of lead A List actors who are anywhere near Reacher’s physical size. The actors that are that size aren’t great actors to begin with. There are a few who would’ve been closer in size to Tom Cruise but it was a case of ‘is this movie ever going to be made? We have a star and a shoot ready.’
Lee Child has had to endure a fair amount of criticism but casting isn’t really his decision anyway and I can completely understand his reasons for that film being made. The movie adaptation will never live up to some fans expectations.
But in my opinion, humble as it may be, McQuarrie and Cruise captured Reacher, and in fact they captured the most difficult aspect of his character to realise on screen.
For me, what makes Jack Reacher isn’t his size, it’s his mind.
Reacher outthinks his opponents in fights before a single punch is thrown. He thinks through the problems that he encounters in the books to figure out what’s really going on. Those are the best moments in any Reacher thriller.
How do you capture someone thinking on screen?
You hire Christopher McQuarrie.
I really enjoyed the Reacher film and I hope there’s more to come.
For me, McQuarrie and Cruise bottled a fair amount of Reacher lightning.
Feel free to disagree, it’s a movie, it’s an interpretation of a character, not a theft.
Speaking of theft, I’ve been robbed by two films in recent years. Robbed of my time, lied to, and generally I got played.
Spoiler Alert. I’m, going to talk about The Grey and The Amazing Spider Man 2. If you haven’t seen The Amazing Spider Man 2 and you might want to see it, then don’t read on. If you’ve seen TASM2 but you’ve not watched Liam Neeson in The Grey – then I urge you to read on because you’re not missing anything.
Sorry Liam.
I’m a big Liam Neeson fan; I’m from Northern Ireland after all, but Christ on a bike, The Grey infuriated me like no other film I’ve ever seen and it’s not Liam’s fault. He was good in the film. The film itself is poor.
Now, a lot of people liked it. I know Harry Knowles and a couple of his buddies over at Ain’t It Cool News, really loved it.
I hated it and it’s largely because of the trailer.
Liam is a marksman who works for an oil company in some Artic wasteland. He protects the other employees from wild animal attacks, chiefly wolves.
For this film, I willing ignored the widely held knowledge that wolves are terrified of people and rarely do they attack anyone. That wasn’t my bug bear. In the trailer we see Liam on a plane, with around twenty other guys and the plane goes down, they land in the frozen wasteland and about twelve or so survive.
So far, the trailer, and the movie itself up to this point, is setting up a survivor story. I love a good survivor story; man bonds with man against the elements in an effort to survive beyond all the odds. It’s a story about hope, friendship, and the triumph of the human spirit. To triumph, you need adversity. In this movie we have the environment itself and a pack of ravenous and truly terrifying wolves.
So the wolves begin howling as the survivors huddle round a campfire – that’s a really cool scene, probably the best in the film.
At this point, watching the trailer and the movie, I was rubbing my hands thinking this was going to be a great story.
It isn’t.
Before I tell you about the rest of the film, I have to mention the big problem with the trailer.
In the trailer we see a few scenes with Liam on his own; he’s being surrounded by wolves, he’s injured, he takes a couple of empty miniatures of vodka and whiskey and tapes the bottles in between his fingers, then tapes a dagger to the other hand. He smashes the bottom of the miniatures against a rock so now he has his own make-shift broken glass claws, the wolves move closer, quick cuts between the wolf’s eyes and Liam’s eyes and… the trailer ends.
I was thinking, ‘wow, I have to watch that film to see that fight between a desperate Liam and a CGI wolf.’
Back to the movie.
The wolves pick off the survivors. Just as we get to know and like a character, they get killed. More people die. Then more. Then some fall off a rope stretched over a ravine, more get taken by the wolves.
This is getting pretty depressing.
More die.
It’s all hopeless and one character, and I shit you not, dies by simply giving up; he sits his ass down in a rock and says, ‘that’s it, I want to die, I can’t take it anymore.’  This is a little over three quarters of the way through the film and at that stage, I knew how the man felt.
But I didn’t turn off the film.
I’d remembered the trailer. I’m sticking with this depressing film because I want to see Liam fight the wolf. That’ll be awesome, that’ll make the whole film worthwhile.
More die.
Liam’s hurt and scrabbling through the snow.
‘This is it,’ I tell myself.
Liam’s being surrounded by wolves, he’s injured, he takes a couple of empty miniatures of vodka and whiskey and tapes the bottles in between his fingers, then tapes a dagger to the other hand.
‘Here we go,’ I say, and I sit forward in my chair.
He smashes the bottom of the miniatures against a rock so now he has his own make shift broken glass claws, the wolves move closer, quick cuts between the wolf’s eyes and Liam’s eyes and… the movie ends.
Dear Reader, there is very little, if any, swearing in my books, but believe me, I am a world heavyweight contender when it comes to swearing.
I almost woke the kids and frightened the shit out of the dog.
There is no fight with the wolf. The scene in the trailer for the film is in fact the last scene and the very last shot in the whole movie. How bad is that? The very last shot is in the trailer.
Trailers are supposed to tease. This teased me into believing I would see a Liam v Wolf. I didn’t.
This is essentially a survivor film where everybody dies. That might be intellectually brave and challenging cinema. But not for me, I like the bad guys to go down, I like Bruce Willis in a dirty vest, I like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover getting drunk and shooting people. I like to see the underdog win.
A survivor movie where everyone dies is pointless. It’s like making a comedy that isn’t funny, or an action film with no explosions, or a Bruce Lee movie where Bruce doesn’t actually hit anybody.
With Spiderman, again, we see the very last shot of the movie in the trailer.
This is not good enough – this is trickery.
So I’m not watching trailers anymore.
But then I saw the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy. This restored my faith in cool trailers that tease.
If you haven’t seen it, check it out now, it’s funny, cool, exciting and it teases, and if Mrs C is reading this – watch the trailer, Peter Serafinowicz is in it – you like him.

Is there a lesson in all of this?
(1) If you’re getting your book adapted for the screen – Chris McQuarrie is a good bet.
(2) If you’re writing a story – don’t promise what you can’t deliver.
(3) Even though he’s only three feet tall, Tom Cruise could probably kick our asses.
(4) If Liam Neeson should get cast in a Renny Harlin film about a tribe of junkie, cannibalistic traffic wardens who moonlight as Burlesque dancers – it will still be a better movie than The Grey.

(5) Lee Child will continue to write fantastic thrillers with the full-sized Reacher as the central character.

(6) There is a lack of gun-toting, sarcastic raccoons in literature – maybe this is what Will Self is going on about.

(7) If Arnie ever plays Chaplin on screen, I’ll be first in line to buy a ticket.

That’s all for now, folks.

One Comment

  1. I am a HUGE fan of the Jack Reacher books, Kevin, and I’ve just finished radeing THE AFFAIR. A big disappointment when I consider 61 HOURS and WORTH DYING FOR, last year’s books which, to my mind, were Lee’s best work ever.I didn’t hate THE AFFAIR, Lee is too good a writer for that, but I just found that the storyline meandered too much. The overly detailed ‘love’ scenes didn’t add anything to the story. Dare I say this? I was bored part of the time. That’s never happened to me before with a Jack Reacher novel.I did like though, the way Reacher’s brother was woven into the scheme AND the use of Frances Neagley who is one of the only recurring characters in the whole Reacher saga. (As is Garber in another way.)I say, read last year’s two books and then make up your mind about Reacher. It’s usually a terrific series worth radeing. Another one I highly recommend is PERSUADER, published a few years ago.

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