You Can’t Replace Werner Herzog
On Wednesday, an announcement declared the upcoming sequel, Jack Reacher 2, had cast its bad guy. His name is Patrick Heusinger. He’s American, good looking, and has appeared in two films about dancers — which has nothing to do with anything.
This news met me at the intersection of love and hate. Before I could celebrate that the thoroughly underrated Jack Reacher was getting a sequel, I had to take a moment to mourn an unfortunate loss: the inevitable replacing of Werner Herzog.
My love affair with Werner Herzog didn’t begin with the tremendous films he has directed such as Aguirre: Wrath of the Gods, Fitzcarraldo, or Rescue Dawn. Not even his perceptive documentaries Grizzly Man or Encounters At The End of The World truly won me over.
My love affair with Werner Herzog began like this:
“I was in prison in Siberia. I spent my first winter wearing a dead man's coat. A hole in one pocket. I chewed these fingers off before the frostbite could turn to gangrene.”
This a scene from first Jack Reacher film, the 2013 action movie directed by Christopher McQuarrie and starring Tom Cruise. The line is spoken by Herzog, who plays the omnipresent baddie, The Zec. Moments earlier, one of The Zec’s cronies had delivered some bad news — news which has exacerbated through his own actions. The Zec follows this up by telling his crony:
“Show me you'll do anything to survive.”
The crony asks what does The Zec want him to do.
The Zec says, “The fingers from your left hand.”
The crony is disturbed at the suggestion. He asks The Zec if he has a knife he could use.
“Did I have a knife in Siberia?”
The crony sticks his fingers in his mouth and bites. But he can’t bring himself to gnaw off his fingers. The Zec has the crony shot. Then, the kicker, The Zec ruminates to himself:
“Always the bullet. I don’t understand.”
You gotta be kidding me. That’s heavy. I’m a sucker for great storytelling. I don’t care if the bad guys get away. I loved Se7en. I adore The Wolf of Wall Street. If a story is told effectively, if its dramatic moments hit like a freight train, that’s a great story. The Zec demanding his crony bite off his fingers because he believes it’s a principle of survival? Oh. My. Gawd.
Jack Reacher is basically a studio era whodunit classic on HD PED’s. It’s so hard-boiled, it’s peeling. Jack Reacher is like the Honey Badger. Jack Reacher is the lovechild Chuck Norris Rules would have had…if it had mated with Jack Reacher (see what I did there?).
The film begins with a sniper assassination. A group of seemingly unrelated individuals are gunned down a la the Washington Sniper murders. The execution is clumsy and the man picked up for the crime says only four words, "Get me Jack Reacher."
First off, imagine that — since Reacher is played by Cruise — the guy is actually saying, "Get me Tom Cruise." Which is amazing. I’m sure many a studio head have said those same four words. “We need to save this picture. Get me Tom Cruise!” Furthermore, in the books the film is based on, Reacher is 6’5” and 250 pounds. Asking for someone to get you the 5’7”, 190-pound Cruise doesn’t have the same panache, but the effect is the same. The point elevates Reacher to a superhero-like status. It’s on him to save the day.
Now say what you will about Tom Cruise (and I say it often, he ain’t much of an actor), but you have to admire him. Not only does he do the projects he wants, he puts his ass on the line (figuratively and literally). He's also apparently the nicest guy on the planet. Jack Reacher was a hand-picked project for him. It may be his best action movie. This is a movie meant to be carried by Cruise.
How can Jack Reacher be elevated to the level of mythos, to the level of a superhero, unless his shadowy nemesis is equally formidable? You can’t stick Tom Cruise opposite a charmer with a smooth voice — Jack Reacher needs an appropriate foil.
It all works because of Herzog. His name is The Zec. The Zec for pity sake! The Zec! I have a central tenant about cinema: any great movie character is approximately twelve per cent more interesting with a noun for a name or preceded by ‘The’. That’s why some of my favorite movies are Twolane Blacktop (The Mechanic, The Girl, The Yuppie) and Drive (Driver). This rule even saves poorer movies like Gangs of New York (Bill The Butcher). When you give someone a name like that, they become more than just a person. They become a force of nature.
Further along the aesthetic plane is this: just look at that face.
I have a second central tenant about cinema: great actors must have a great face. In the same way a movie star has an effect on you because their faces are virtually flawless so too can the complexity of an imperfect face. In looking at Herzog, you imagine he could be anybody and tell any story, no matter how dark, depraved, tortured, heck, even whimsical (in a Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang kind of way).
Then there is that voice. It’s as if he speaks through razorblades. Every ‘the’ becomes a ‘ze’. His ‘w’s’ are ‘v’s’. Each word cuts. The words emerge from an audible boxing match already beaten bloody.
So sorry, Patrick Heusinger. You’re no Werner Herzog. You'll try your best but you just can't possibly be Werner Herzog. In your defence, at least you get to play a character called The Hunter. So you’ve got that going for you. Which is nice.