Box Office Case Study: Why 'Jack Reacher' Couldn't Muscle Through Anti-Tom Cruise Outcry

Jack Reacher invents some of the more novel ways to kick ass in all of modern crime fiction throughout Lee Child’s series of hardboiled novels and its first movie adaptation, which debuted on Christmas starring Tom Cruise in the title role. However, the mercenary tough guy failed to bring the pain to his competition at the box office this past weekend, when the film was clobbered by a bunch of underfed street urchins, vengeful slaves, peace-loving hippies from Middle Earth, and Billy Crystal’s kooky granddad.

Oh how the mighty have fallen. It would have been hard to predict another situation in which Borscht Belt shtick would appeal to more moviegoers than a big movie star doling out bone-crunching action in an adaptation of a bestselling novel. But encoded into Jack Reacher’s lackluster box office grosses is a message the filmmakers have been ignoring since the project took shape: Fans of the book know Jack Reacher, and Tom Cruise is no Jack Reacher.

A vocal outcry erupted among Reacher diehards the moment Hollywood’s 5’ 7” Top Gun expressed an interest in playing the 6’5” taciturn anti-hero – a hulking ex-military-cop-turned-vigilante, defined by his ability to overpower and intimidate by virtue of his size and cold-blooded determination to mete out justice at all costs. But the production charged ahead, ignoring widespread complaints that Cruise was not the physical specimen the role required and lacked a crucial intimidation factor that could not be fixed by platform-enhanced shoes or steroid-enhanced gym workouts.

Child wrote Reacher to be a kind of a human IED wired to explode on impact. This is a quality that exists at the cellular level. Clint Eastwood had it in his prime, as did Robert Mitchum. Among today’s most age-appropriate actors, Michael Shannon and Ryan Gosling come closest to embodying Reacher’s combination of menace, morality, and madness.

Over the past eighteen months, Tom Cruise is Not Jack Reacher Facebook pages have been erected. Petitions have circulated demanding casting recall. But even as the populist revolt gained momentum with threats to boycott the film if Cruise remained in the role, the filmmakers stood their ground while launching a counter-offensive. Christopher McQuarrie pulled triple duty as the film’s writer-director and its deflector shield, arguing that Cruise is actually perfect for the role. In a nutshell: Both Cruise and Reacher are inscrutably immune to pressure. Child chimed in early and often, claiming Cruise’s acting abilities would erase the physical disparity while pointing out Hollywood’s shortage of size-appropriate stars. Cruise, for his part, has tried to halt the hubbub by drawing comparisons between the haunted drifter and his peripatetic travels between movie sets. “It was easy, just a great character to play” insisted Cruise in the publicity run-up to the film’s release. “That’s kind of my life actually.”

In the end, everybody lost out. Disgruntled readers and a slew of lackluster reviews undermined the film’s credibility among uninitiated moviegoers. The filmmakers tarnished a sterling collaborative track record: McQuarrie has been Cruise’s clutch rewrite guy on the “Mission Impossible” movies ever since the two successfully combated an assault of bad buzz surrounding their joint effort, “Valkyrie,” a WWII thriller which went on to become a surprise critical and commercial hit, despite Cruise’s dubious eye patch and German accent. And now Child’s literary legacy remains full of unrealized potential to spawn a Dirty Harry-like cinematic icon.

While crowd-sourcing is not the answer to every casting conundrum. This is one case where everyone might have been better served by listening to the wisdom of the group.