Television

At Last, the Freaky, Alien Jack Reacher We’ve Been Waiting For

Lee Child knows the character is preposterous. So does this TV show.

Jack Reacher
The new, improved Jack Reacher. Amazon Studios

The Reacher Creatures are, at last, satisfied. After bitching for years that our hero, Lee Child’s iconic drifter/investigator/Thanksgiving-turkey-hand-haver Jack Reacher, has been done dirty by Hollywood, we’ve got a new show—Reacher, on Amazon Prime—to binge. I’m happy; my Reacher-loving husband is happy; r/jackreacher is (mostly) happy. Gawker’s Brandy Jensen, who memorably chronicled her pandemic-inspired dive into the 26 available Reacher novels last year, tweeted simply: “For anyone wondering: I love the new Reacher show.”

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The Prime adaptation’s first season draws from the first Reacher book, Killing Floor, which came out in 1997 and set the pattern for the novels that have dropped once a year, like clockwork, since then (with one asterisk, for 2010, when we got two). Jack Reacher, an ex-MP who has recently left the service, has no human ties or obligations, having grown up in a military family, most of whom are dead. He decides to drift around the United States and see the country he served, where he never lived. He gets off a bus in Margrave, Georgia, curious to see a town where a blues musician he likes once played. It’s a pristine-looking place, but something’s not right. Dead bodies start popping up in batches; Reacher is at first a suspect, then helps the few non-corrupt members of law enforcement, who find him confounding and then indispensable, in their investigation, eventually uncovering a baroque conspiracy. He beats people up; makes good plans and executes them. Reacher has already been renewed for Season 2.

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One theme has dominated coverage of the new adaptation, like Jack Reacher looming over a stranger in a diner parking lot who’s about to hit a woman: Alan Ritchson’s body is just right. Ritchson, the actor who plays Reacher on the show, is eight inches taller, and much bulkier, than Tom Cruise, the last guy who tried to embody the freakishly-large modern-day ronin who floats around the United States uncovering all manner of crimes and conspiracies. Reacher, every fan agreed when the Cruise movies came out, needs to be like a planet, the kind of male specimen whose physical presence bends events when he enters the room. Cruise was a poor avatar. (The fact that Cruise decided that he could, by dint of his not-inconsiderable will, look like Reacher on screen is probably the best possible evidence that Scientology can’t get you everything.)

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Partway through the first episode, I thought Ritchson, who is two inches shorter (at 6’3”) than the book’s hero, was just about the right size, but a skosh too hunky for the role. Ritchson’s previous roles are in superhero, CW-type shows—Titans, Legends of Tomorrow—and he’s quite cute, in a craggy way. I love the fictional Jack Reacher because he’s a freak of nature, not because he’s the handsomest linebacker on a high-school football team, and I wasn’t sure this actor was right. There’s a sequence in the first episode of the show, where he is in a changing room at a thrift store and opens the curtain shirtless, revealing a carefully chiseled torso, that I thought was way too much. Sure, Lee Child once memorably described Reacher at his most muscle-bound as looking “like a condom stuffed with walnuts.” But the character’s attractiveness, like his effectiveness at investigation, is never conventional.

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Luckily, I watched the rest of the show, and Ritchson won me over. Ritchson’s Reacher carries himself in a kind of shoulders-forward, shuffling way. He seems like he could run if he had to, but he wouldn’t relish the prospect. He’s powerful, but a little weary, like a bull in pasture. When I interviewed Andy Martin, a philosopher who wrote a couple of books about the creation and reception of Jack Reacher, a few years ago, he argued that Cruise was wrong for Reacher not just because of his size, but because the actor was too nimble: too good at sprinting, too competent at driving, altogether too eager for action. When Cruise’s first Reacher movie came out in 2012, some fans argued that the right choice would have been Channing Tatum. But that would have been wrong, too: Tatum is big, but like Cruise, he’s far too sprightly. Ritchson gets the looming, gravity-bound part down pat.

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Reacher Season 1 changes key details from Killing Floor—Roscoe, the love interest, is much less of a shrinking violet in the show than the book (Willa Fitzgerald is excellent in this role); some of the grislier details of the killings are toned down—but retains the books’ self-aware sense of humor. Lee Child knows that Reacher is preposterous, and relishes it; the show follows suit. Take the conversation between Reacher and Roscoe where she asks him his favorite flower, and he says “Snapdragons. Cool name, hard to kill.” Or when Reacher goes to confront the slimy son of the town bigwig, who is eyeballing him from across the square. He tells the guy that the last time someone looked at him like that, it was a woman in Panama who wanted to dance the tamborito with him. “Do you want to dance the tamborito with me?” he asks the twerp, and it’s not an action-hero quip; it’s said with such unique sincerity that I laughed out loud at Ritchson’s delivery. What about when he needs to fit three bodies into one car trunk, and does it by the simple expedient of breaking their bones by brute force, so that they’ll all Tetris into the small space? Or when he uses ketchup and salt to scour an aluminum VIN plate on a junky car, so he can read the number? (He learned it in the Army, you see.)

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Child’s vision for Reacher is that he is a sort of an alien. In a new introduction to Killing Floor, Child wrote that while he created Reacher to be a hypercompetent winner (“an old-fashioned hero who had no problems, no issues, and no navel-gazing”), he also wanted to be sure to show that the man was awkward: a person who is unused to civilian life, and “if he doesn’t know how something works, he just doesn’t participate.” Reacher doesn’t care about clothes, for example—he buys them from thrift shops, or cheaply, wherever he happens to be, and just trashes them when they get dirty—and so Ritchson spends part of the first season wearing a black shirt with the legend “My Kids Went to NY and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.” “To him, this is a rigorously rational solution to an evident problem,” Child writes. “The contrast between his narrow and highly developed skills and his general helplessness humanizes him.”

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It’s a bit of a cheat, this; it lets you love a character who’s often quite inconsiderate, because he has a reason. Brandy Jensen described Reacher as “less a man out of time than one who exists radically in the present.” He is solving a case, and that is all that matters; he can’t be bothered with niceties. This oddness and lack of manners really translates in the show, as when Reacher calls his only friend, Frances Neagley (Maria Sten), who used to serve under him and now is a private investigator, to ask her to help with the Margrave case. She offers her sympathies for the death of his brother, and asks how he’s doing. “It’s my brother who died, not me,” he says, wanting to get on with it. “Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot who I was speaking with,” she shoots back.

“If Reacher were real,” Andy Martin said to me, “he’d probably be unbearable.” And at the end of Reacher’s first season, when Reacher leaves Roscoe, with whom he had developed a very sweet chemistry, to get back on the Greyhound bus and roll out of Margrave, you’re going to be severely tested in your allegiance to this hulking giant who travels with no baggage, just a French medal in his pocket. But if the feelings of Reacher readers are any predictor, you’ll be back for more, next year.

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