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The Ridiculous Allure of Reacher

The Ridiculous Allure of Reacher
The Ridiculous Allure of Reacher


Here’s something we can all agree on: Jack Reacher kicks ass. Kicks it with relish. Kicks it with—not abandon, he’s too in control for that—but with a sense of near-blissful release. Kicks it, most importantly, in the name of justice, in the name of everybody getting what they deserve.

America loved Jack Reacher from the moment it met him. Lee Child, his creator, has written 28 Reacher novels, all of them best sellers. But there’s a special spice, a special piquancy, to our Reacherism right now. Amazon’s Reacher, the second season of which wraps up this week, is among the most-watched shows in the country. It’s as if our collective imaginative power source, its fuses blown, has switched over to some kind of small, noisy backup generator. Enough with nuance, enough with finesse. Give us a violent simplicity. Give us an elemental morality. Give us Jack Reacher kicking ass, over and over again.

Reacher, on the page, is a strange and special and severely limited character: That’s the whole point of him. His mind is a diagram. His personality is a line of code. A former military policeman with no interest in possessions or domesticity or really anything apart from righting wrongs in the most ass-kicking manner possible, Reacher is a pure creature of American space: Toothbrush in pocket, he folds his mighty bulk into Greyhound buses and diner booths, and waits for the next plot to arrive. And Lee Child makes up the plots as he goes along. The Reacher novels, as documented in Andy Martin’s fascinating book Reacher Said Nothing, are basically extended flights of improvisation: one take, with the barest of editing. This makes for an interesting fictional atmosphere; part of the distinctive magic of the books is the sensation that Reacher, in his adding-machine way, is puzzling through the intentions of his author: Now what’s he got me into?

Reacher, the show, certainly partakes of Child’s free-jazz narrative method—after the second episode, does anybody really know, or care, what the plot is? Who’s stealing which missiles, or why? The ass-kicking is the point, and there’s plenty of that. At the beginning of Season 1, an abusive partner is straightened out before Reacher has even uttered a word: Reacher just has to stand in a diner parking lot and stare at him. Within five minutes of the first episode of Season 2, Reacher has thunderously intervened in a carjacking. There’s also some god-awful dialogue. A bruiser squares up to Reacher: “You some kind of smart guy?” Reacher’s retort: “Smarter than you.” That showed him.

The show has a kind of escalating unreality, an ever-increasing quotient of weirdness, bum notes, AI-like vibes. A well-groomed sinister dude, a hit man type, goes through immigration at an airport. The officer eyes him narrowly: “Reason for your stay, Mr. Mount?” “Adrian, please,” simpers the sinister dude. Who says that to a customs officer? After a big punch-up on an Army base, Reacher and his crew are celebrating around a campfire; one of them pulls out a guitar and starts to sing Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” But he doesn’t sing it like a beery campfire guy. He sings it with a strange inhuman purity, like a cast member from Godspell.

So I was ready to turn my back on Season 2 of Reacher. But then something clicked. Something turned. I think it was the moment in episode seven when Reacher said to a worried-looking mother and daughter whom he was sheltering from the bad guys, “It won’t be forever. We just need to kill a few more people.” He said it with such tenderness, such an intent to reassure, and the mother and daughter were so horrified. The fairy-tale physics of this Reacherworld suddenly cohered, and I found my fulfillment as a viewer.

Alan Ritchson, as Reacher, gives off flickers of unexpected depth: For all his mountainousness, something baffled and childlike is looking out of his eyes, and when he walks he looks not at home in the world. Which is fair enough—the world is terrible! His buddy Franz has been murdered! “He was tortured for either revenge or information,” says Reacher, hunched massively in a diner booth. “When they were done with him they dumped him from the sky to avoid ballistics.” Then he takes a savage, sullen bite of his turkey club, and you want to believe in him. You really do.

But, idle as it might be to criticize something for what it is not, I do regard this show as a bit of a lost opportunity. Jack Reacher has plenty to say to America in 2024, to this husk of a society we’re all rattling around in, plenty to say about violence and righteousness and emptiness and who gets away with what. He’s a radical presence: a homeless man, a lone wolf. He’s got X-ray eyes, in his way: He sees through. Out of the desert of no attachment, the American vacancy, he comes like an anvil-fisted John the Baptist, wearing used Carhartt instead of camel hair. The rotted structures of reality give way before him. The Reacher version of him doesn’t quite get there, or go there. Maybe next season.



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