Tom Cruise got Jack Reacher wrong – here’s how Amazon got him right

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Tom Cruise plays a pint-sized version of the character in the 2012 film - Karen Ballard
Tom Cruise plays a pint-sized version of the character in the 2012 film - Karen Ballard

“Details matter,” says Jack Reacher – as played by Alan Ritchson – in his new Prime series. For fans of the Jack Reacher books – the prolific, clinical series by British author Lee Child – there’s one detail that stands head and shoulders above all others: that Jack Reacher is a 6’5”, 200lbs-plus man-mountain – like he was chiseled from a hunk of raw testosterone. Very much not Tom Cruise, who played Jack Reacher in two completely fine but highly contentious films.

It’s one of the reasons the new Prime series, named simply Reacher, has already been a huge hit – and I do mean huge – with die-hard fans, i.e. the “Reacher Creatures”. Unlike Tom Cruise, Alan Ritchson very much is Jack Reacher. “I’m happy to see the positivity,” says Heather Martin, Lee Child’s official biographer. “It’s a relief after all the aggro there has been over the years.”

Indeed, the casting of Tom Cruise – all 5’7” of him – kicked off a furor of fan discontent. “Cruise is NOT Reacher,” fans insisted – a sentiment that became something of a catchphrase within the anti-Cruise campaign.

Heather Martin describes how the Lee Child archives, held at the University of East Anglia, contain “boxes and boxes and boxes of hate mail”. Martin read some letters but had to stop. “It was frankly distressing,” she says. “Readers felt that Lee Child had personally betrayed them.”

Reacher’s immense size is perhaps why trouble finds him so easily. Or maybe he goes looking for it. An ex-military cop, he drifts across the United States and exerts his nails-hard skills – solving problems, unravelling conspiracies, and smashing through bad guys – before sauntering out of town like some legend from the Old West. He is, as described in the new series, “two hundred and fifty pounds of frontier justice”.

Alan Ritchson as the hulking Jack Reacher in Amazon’s new series - Amazon
Alan Ritchson as the hulking Jack Reacher in Amazon’s new series - Amazon

There’s more beneath that massive surface. He stands above everyone both physically and mentally. “He’s Sherlock Holmes with muscles,” says Jim Ramsey from the Jack Reacher Fan Club on Facebook. “He’s always committed to doing the right thing.”

The first Reacher book, Killing Floor (on which the first season of the Prime series is based) was published in 1997. Heather Martin thinks there’s plenty of Lee Child – who is 6’4” himself – in his creation. “I think Reacher came from deep with him,” she says. “When he was a boy, Lee liked to read adventure and hero stories. He loved David and Goliath – but he wanted Goliath to be the good guy, not the bad guy.”

Martin notes other shared traits between Child and Reacher: “The intelligence, the quick wit, the dry humour, an element of detachment… an innate hatred of bullies.”

Child has cranked out a Jack Reacher novel every year since (apart from 2010, when he managed two). Child’s brother, Andrew Grant, will soon take over the series. To date, there are 26 novels and 15 short stories. There was talk of a film from the get-go – Killing Floor was optioned on the day it was published.

After years of stop-start development, Tom Cruise was announced in summer of 2011. Initial reports quibbled about the size issue (poking fun of Cruise’s height was hardly new) and Lee Child defended the casting. “Reacher’s size in the books is a metaphor for an unstoppable force, which Cruise portrays in his own way.” And what book-to-film adaptation would turn down an endorsement from the Cruiser, one of the biggest stars in modern cinema history, with a lifetime box office of almost $11 billion?

But Cruise’s casting dominated – and soured – talk around the film. Size, it seemed, did matter. “The hardcore fans were very unhappy,” says Jim Ramsey. “For 15 years – from 1997 to 2012 – they’d built up an image of Reacher in their minds. Reacher’s size is an elemental part of his character. He does a lot of things knowing that he’s the biggest fish in the pond. People will cross the street when they see him coming. We all have someone we’re afraid of. It dawns on Reacher, ‘I’m that guy.’”

A Los Angeles Times article from July 2012 was hammered with anti-Cruise comments. “I totally agree with every other fan that is saying Tom Cruise IS NOT Jack Reacher,” complained one Reacher Creature “I am so upset that they chose Tom to play this role. I will not pay money to see this movie, either. Get a real man to play that role and I will be the first in line to see that movie.”

Others seconded a boycott (“My vote is a BIG BIG NO NO NO NO NO NO NO to seeing it – hitting Hollywood bigwigs where it hurts”) and some made it personal against Cruise (“I cannot believe they actually used an arrogant overexposed short IMBECILE to create such an awesome character. I will not see it and it literally RUINED the whole character for me. HOW COULD THEY DO THIS?”)

Jack Reacher was directed by Christopher McQuarrie and hit cinemas in December 2012. Based on Child’s 2005 novel One Shot, it’s perfectly decent, if unremarkable – more of a generic Tom Cruise action-thriller. “I see it as an alternative version of the book – like a cover version of a hit song,” says Heather Martin. “Which is also how Lee felt about the Tom Cruise films. At the time he thought, ‘This is fine, he’s doing his own thing, and I’m OK with that.’”

Jack Reacher author Lee Child, in 2017 - Geoff Pugh
Jack Reacher author Lee Child, in 2017 - Geoff Pugh

Reviews were focused on the shortfall and fan discontent. Size became the big issue. “Tiny Tom was the last person anyone expected to play Jack Reacher,” I wrote in a magazine review at the time, “but Cruise saves the film from coming up short.”

Was the problem really just Cruise’s height? Cruise might be short on stature but he’s not exactly short on machismo – as proved by the game of one-upmanship he’s been playing with himself in the Mission: Impossible films. (Run around a skyscraper? No problem. Cling to a plane during takeoff? Toy town, mate.) I once knew an actor who was co-starring with Cruise – he had to ice his shins everyday from being forced to endure Cruise’s mad, manly workouts.

The real problem may have been Cruise appropriating a passionately-loved character – assaulting the fans’ sense of ownership with something broader. Cruise’s Reacher was indistinct from his Mission: Impossible character, Ethan Hunt.

There was, arguably, a touch of arrogance. When the film begins with its opening “Who’s Jack Reacher?” gambit (cue Cruise stomping in like a modern-day cowboy) the sentiment might as well have been: “You know Tom Cruise is really, really tough, right?”

Ritchson with Reacher co-star Malcolm Goodwin - Amazon
Ritchson with Reacher co-star Malcolm Goodwin - Amazon

One furious fan alluded to as much: “A movie like this should be made for loyal fans of the book series. To those who don’t know who Jack Reacher is, this is just another action movie, who cares. To fans of Reacher/Child, this is a joke. This movie is a mistake for Cruise and Child, if you can call making tens of millions of dollars a mistake…”

Indeed, Jack Reacher was a hit. It made $218 million worldwide and warranted a sequel – the even-less-remarkable Jack Reacher: Never Go Back – in 2016. While there’s always a danger of letting a toxic minority overrun fandom, Lee Child seemed worn down by the negativity. In 2018 he announced that the films wouldn’t continue, and a TV show was in the works instead.

“I really enjoyed working with Cruise,” Child said. “He’s a really, really nice guy. “We had a lot of fun. But ultimately the readers are right. The size of Reacher is really, really important and it’s a big component of who he is…”

“What Lee came to realise,” says Heather Martin, “is that for the first time in his career he had failed to see it from the point of view of the reader. When Lee admitted that he’d got in wrong, he said that he wasn’t wrong to cast Cruise – he was wrong in not appreciating how offended fans would be. Because they owned the character.”

Lee Child has rightly credited the Cruise films for attracting new fans and readers – Cruise’s involvement helped the books break into territories. Jim Ramsey admits his own fandom began through Cruise’s first movie. Now he runs the Jack Reacher Fan Club, a 13,000-strong Facebook group that discusses all things Reacher – the books and Prime series, at least.

When Ramsey took over the group, steering its discourse away from still-persistent anti-Cruise negativity was like “getting a big ocean liner to change direction”. Now one of the group’s rules is: no whining about Tom Cruise being cast as Jack Reacher. “We’re talking about it 10 years later,” laughs Ramsey. “That says a lot.”

The Facebook group has blown up with positivity for the eight-part Prime series, which premiered on February 4. It was renewed for a second season within just days. According to showrunner Nick Santora, its popularity has been like “wildfire”.

“I think there’s been a hunger for a screen version of Reacher for so many years,” says Heather Martin. “Cruise promised so much as one of all-time great film actors, but couldn’t deliver. The hunger that was already there was then aggravated by anger and frustration. The reason for the outpouring of celebration is that Alan Ritchson has come along and assuaged all that pain!”

As executive producer, Lee Child was hands-on with casting. Ritchson – who made his acting debut in Smallville as a teenage Aquaman (less beefcake, more fishcake) – certainly measures up to Reacher: 6’2” and built like a brick privy. And much like the literary counterpart, there’s more to his Reacher than muscle.

Both Heather Taylor and Jim Ramsey note him bringing Reacher to life without words, by just standing there and looking – something that taps into a favourite phrase from the novels: “Reacher said nothing.”

“Lee has chosen this actor with fans in mind,” says Heather Taylor. “Ritchson has that ability to convey a lot with very little. His physicality is paramount. But he also captures the restraint and wry humour.”

Die-hard Reacher fans are very happy with the new casting of the role - Amazon
Die-hard Reacher fans are very happy with the new casting of the role - Amazon

If Cruise was still Cruise, Ritchson is the embodiment of Reacher: a man so beefy that handcuffs won’t fit around his wrists; a man who gets embarrassed ordering a salad; a man who can tell whether someone’s ex-military just from way they tie their shoes; and who’s so adept at both violence and investigating, that he only needs to look at a freshly castrated murder victim to know exactly where the missing testicles have been stuffed.

When Cruise fought five guys at once, it felt like self-aggrandising. When Ritchson does it, every gouged-eye, snapped ankle, and smashed-in face hits with a crunch of undeniable satisfaction. Also crucial is the episodic series format, which is far better suited to the twisty, pulse pounding nature of the Reacher mysteries. Jim Ramsey also appreciates some new additions to the story and character – Reacher has managed to keep even the most hardcore fans guessing.

Alan Ritchson may have brought to life something even bigger than the character – the phenomenon of Lee Child’s creation. “Lee has achieved something that few writers do,” says Heather Taylor. “He’s created a character that has escaped the books and kind of lives among us – like Robin Hood, almost. He’s become part of popular culture.”

The Reacher Guy by Heather Martin is out now

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