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Psychopath or hero? 'Reacher' presents a vigilante who walks the line

Willa Fitzgerald and Alan Ritchson are on the hunt for justice in <em>Reacher</em>.
Shane Mahood
Shane Mahood/Amazon Prime Video
Willa Fitzgerald and Alan Ritchson are on the hunt for justice in Reacher.

Old Western movies often begin with a stranger riding into a troubled town that doesn't know what to make of him: Is he an outlaw? A lawman? In fact, he's usually something in between: an honorable, gunslinging outsider who will help clean up the town, albeit while shooting a bad guy or two.

Today's version of this mysterious loner is Jack Reacher. He's the hero of Reacher, a new series from Amazon Prime Video, which specializes in making TV out of popular "manly" men franchises. (Previous series center on Harry Bosch and Jack Ryan.)

Based on Killing Floor, the first of Lee Child's bestselling novels, this eight-part series offers a superhero for viewers who don't like Spandex costumes. At 6 feet, 5 inches and 250 pounds, the brainy, inexpressive Reacher is a weird cross between Mr. Spock and the Incredible Hulk.

Alan Ritchson — who boasts abs the size of Evian bottles — stars as Reacher, a war hero and ex-military policeman who now spends his life off the grid, traveling the country with no luggage, using fake names and paying for everything in cash. As the series begins, Reacher's turned up in Margrave, Ga., where an old blues musician he likes supposedly died. There he's promptly and, of course, wrongly, arrested for murdering two men on the night he hit town.

For reasons I won't explain, Reacher sticks around to solve the case. He works alongside Roscoe (Willa Fitzgerald), a sharp female officer he finds fetching, and Finlay (Malcolm Goodwin), a buttoned-up Black detective who's just moved to Margrave from Boston. As the body count soars — in part, courtesy of Reacher — the trio finds itself knee-deep in dirty cops, corrupt officials, nasty rich kids, corporate scoundrels, murderous Venezuelan thugs and a conspiracy delirious enough for QAnon.

Call me retrograde, but I found Reacher entertaining. It clips right along, is reasonably suspenseful and has a vivid cast. As Roscoe and Finlay, Fitzgerald and Goodwin are really terrific: They bring an emotional richness to their characters that isn't in the script.

As for Ritchson, whose deadpan line-readings sometimes made me think of early Clint Eastwood, he gives Reacher the intimidating, man-mountain presence missing from the movie version played by bantam-weight Tom Cruise. Ritchson's Reacher could use Cruise's as a sock puppet.

But while I raced happily through the series, I didn't feel altogether clean about it. Although Reacher may be a righteous dude, he's also a vigilante who, early in the show, announces his plans: "I'm going to find out who did it, and then kill them all." He's not being metaphorical or hyperbolic. No crook ever goes to trial in a Jack Reacher story.

In fact, his approach seems so ultra-violent on-screen that the show, unlike the books, feels the need to make jokes about it, working hard to convince us he's not a psychopath but a bearer of justice. He punishes child abusers and defends women being mistreated by their boyfriends. He even rescues a dog whose owner is treating it cruelly.

Unlike most of his justice-dispensing forebears in pop culture — such as Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer or Eastwood's original "Dirty" Harry Callahan —Reacher doesn't come off as morally dodgy or politically conservative. Like the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, he's essentially a vigilante that liberals can love. He hates bullies, is drawn to strong women, and feels more comfortable with Black barbers than with prosperous white people. His protégé, Neagley (Maria Sten), is a mixed-race woman.

Where those gunslinger heroes helped honest folks in a lawless Wild West, this series conjures a present in which the existing laws have frayed. It speaks to an America in which many people — liberal and conservative — are filled with rage because they believe the system doesn't deliver the justice they want to see delivered. Reacher offers the pleasures of an invincible avenger who satisfies our fantasies of payback — and lets us see them as moral. And have I mentioned that I really enjoyed it?

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.