As far as filmmaking goes, Never Go Back is not as good as 2012’s Jack Reacher. The dialogue is not consistently good – which is a shame, because Mr. Child’s dialogue is one of the strong points of his books. The character development was clunky; the plot unfolded in giant leaps; the ending was unfortunately sappy.
However, Never Go Back captures a darker side of Reacher’s persona, one that is consistent with the series. I like this turn. It doesn't gloss over Reacher's internal reality. I also liked the sub-plot of Reacher’s protection of a young girl. In a world where sex trafficking is epidemic and domestic violence is huge problem, Reacher reminds us of the importance of men protecting those around them who are vulnerable.
As far as modern protagonists go, Reacher is one of the better ones. He’s more the hero we want than the hero we deserve. He understands the importance of authority even while fighting against the corruption of it; he can’t walk away from injustice, especially if vulnerable people are involved; he won’t usually start a fight, but he will finish it. He’s smart, capable, honest, loyal, and brave.
And yet there is an aspect of his character that lurks disturbingly beneath the surface. It doesn't make him an anti-hero, but it does challenge readers (and viewers) to consider what is acceptable in our heroes and what is not.
There are times in the series that he is portrayed as “feral,” as one character describes him in Never Go Back. In other words, he longs for violence. He lives for the hunt. He might not have gone looking for trouble, but he was glad when trouble finally found him. In several books he taps into the language of evolutionary predation: he’s the Alpha Male, built to kill. And kill he does.
He’s the guy you want on your side – always – because he’s going to win. He is a guy you trust, because he is always on the side of justice. He’s also a guy who is programmed for violence, and there are times the stone cold killer who lurks beneath the surface rises to the top. In Never Go Back, he snarls at the villain, “Look at me!” before he kills him. That’s more than justice. That’s vengeance. We saw hints of this in the first Jack Reacher movie - who's up for drinking blood from a boot? - but this movie makes that reality more tangible. That title draws from a quote from the antagonist who explains that guys like he and Reacher can "never go back" from their world of violence. The Reacher in this movie suggests he is right.
I suspect Mr. Child wants us to feel uneasy in these moments. It forces us to ask important questions. How much are we willing to accept in our heroes? How long can one fight monsters without becoming one? What cost do those who fight for us pay? It's one of the things that makes shows like The Walking Dead so powerful. We cringe when our heroes compromise; we long for them to win their wars, and we want them to be able to fight without being inevitably changed by the fight. We want them to be empathetic, warm and intimate with those they love while being and impervious, hardened and calculating when necessary when dealing with those who are evil. But does that work? Can that tension be navigated successfully? Can they 'turn back on' all the things that matter most when they must turn them off to deal with the evil around them?
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I think Jack Reacher is an important literary hero, not because he is perfect but because so many things he represents are worthwhile. He offers a vision of life where fighting for truth and justice matters. In a world in which the former is increasingly unclear and the latter is sorely lacking, these are stories worth being told. He fights for the vulnerable, and in so doing displays how the strong are meant to use their power. He might walk on the edge of his feral nature, but his code and his will are strong. I find that when I walk away from a Jack Reacher story, I want to be better man. I can't fight like him, but there are many ways I can be stronger in there service of what is good, true and just.
Maybe he doesn't need to go back. He might be right where he needs to be. He just needs a strong moral compass that keeps him clearly headed toward the true north of justice, truth and nobility.