‘Reacher’ Is a Brutal Thriller With a Void at its Center: TV Review

Know this about Jack Reacher: He’s an awfully tall drink of brackish water.

No more than 10 minutes go by in “Reacher,” Prime Video’s series adaptation of Lee Child’s durable book franchise, without someone mentioning the eponymous character’s intimidating stature. Reacher, played here by Alan Ritchson (“Titans”), is described at various points as a “giant,” “Frankenstein’s monster,” and, without irony, as “250 pounds of frontier justice.” When characters aren’t conjuring turns of phrase to describe Reacher’s size, the camera is employing forced perspective techniques to render him even larger than the 6 feet 5 inches established in Child’s canon.

The emphasis on Reacher’s physique is a good-faith gesture to fans of Child’s 26-and-counting novels, some of whom bristled at the pair of Reacher films featuring Tom Cruise as a featherweight version of the legendary bruiser. And for diehards, that bit of corrective fan service should be enough to justify the series. But the other thing to know about Jack Reacher is that while he’s more than a juggernaut, he’s not that much more. Which is to say, a serialized eight-hour series might be too much real estate for a Jack Reacher of any size.

“Reacher” is technically an origin story, with creator Nick Santora faithfully reproducing Child’s debut “Killing Floor.” But, as in the novel, there’s not much origin to go over as Reacher arrives fully formed. He’s an ex-military police investigator living lean off his pension who wanders about the country stumbling onto criminal conspiracies every thousand klicks or so. During a capricious stop in fictional Margrave, Georgia to learn more about a blues guitarist, Reacher winds up the main suspect in multiple murders, one of which hits close to home. Naturally, it isn’t long before Reacher has cleared his name and informally joined forces with Margrave’s finest to uncover the real culprit and kick a few hornet nests in the process.

All the ingredients are there for an appealing case-of-the-week drama built around the “drifter with a heart of gold” archetype that has populated television since the days of “Kung Fu” and “Then Came Bronson.” While Reacher is a man of few words, the few he does say tend to be a perfectly timed rejoinder or a deduction so savant-like it borders on the supernatural. He maintains a prickly but mutually respectful relationship with Margrave’s foppish lead detective, Oscar Finlay (Malcolm Goodwin), and a when-will-they flirtation with Officer Roscoe Conklin (Willa Fitzgerald). There’s even an awkward lab tech (Harvey Guillén from “What We Do in the Shadows”) to cut the tension when the team’s inspecting the splattery murder scenes, which are actually a bit toned down from Child’s lurid descriptions. (Suffice it to say, Child’s bad guys consider their enemies’ genitals fair game.)

But this is Prime Video, not CBS nor USA circa “Burn Notice,” and “Reacher” comes courtesy of Skydance Television, which also developed Amazon’s “Jack Ryan” series. While Prime Video may be casting about for the next “Game of Thrones,” its current brand identity is yoked to its popular adaptations of Father’s Day fiction. Given the popularity of “Jack Ryan” and “Bosch” before it, a Reacher series is a no-brainer, as is its execution, if the goal is to avoid fixing what ain’t broke. And so here is “Reacher,” supersized and adrenalized, a recreation of “Killing Floor” with even more sex, punching, and frenzied cliffhangers.

The difference between “Reacher” and Amazon’s other dad-fic dramas is that the longer it runs, the more obvious its protagonist-shaped void becomes. That’s not a criticism of Ritchson, whose casting borders on the miraculous. Ritchson’s physique cuts the right figure, and he has the charm needed to split the difference between Child’s brutal Reacher and Cruise’s version, which replaced the conspicuous brawn with stealth and guile. Ritchson excels during the terrific fight sequences but keeps the demeanor of a man who fights his way out of jams because he wants to, not because he can’t talk his way out. The deficiency is Reacher himself, a character beloved for qualities that leave him ill-equipped to anchor a serialized drama.

Reacher lives austerely, traveling with little more than a toothbrush and occasionally stopping to buy secondhand T-shirts when the previous one gets drenched in henchman blood. He’s most known for his brutal, Krav Maga-inspired fighting style, which is well-represented here in sequences where he rips through groups of generic toughs and seems barely inconvenienced. As he clips through the mystery, he’s never wrong about a single conclusion. And forget about moral quandaries, as Reacher’s compass is always stuck at true north.

Ultimately, Reacher simply isn’t a character designed to carry a dynamic throughline over eight episodes, especially without voiceover dialogue. Voiceover is criminally overused these days, but “Killing Floor” is told in first-person, which lends interiority to a character in desperate need of it. The closest thing in “Reacher” is a series of flashback scenes focused on the formative years he spent as a military brat. And the takeaway from those scenes is that Reacher has been pretty much the exact same person since grade school: taciturn, scrappy, and weirdly irresistible to goons who travel in packs of four and attack one at a time.

Reacher is great company for a couple of hours, as he was in Christopher McQuarrie’s efficient feature, Ed Zwick’s sequel, or the time it takes to tear through one of Child’s novels, which have sold tens of millions of copies. For even some rabid Reacher fans, this eight-hour series will be the biggest single span of time they’ve spent with the character, and the cracks appear quickly. Santora makes some wise changes to the source material that make “Reacher” a bit more sustainable, like the promotion of a fan-favorite Reacher ally who appears despite being introduced in the sixth novel. But “Reacher” will never be more interesting than Reacher, and he may have finally found the medium that fits too loosely over his big-and-tall frame.

“Reacher” premieres Friday, February 4 on Amazon Prime Video.

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