It Is Now Time To Discuss Jack Reacher Throwing A Grill At A Guy
1:08 PM EST on January 19, 2024
Tom Ley: Ah good, you guys are here. It seems that our top-secret encrypted messaging system, in which I deposit $80,085 into your bank accounts every time I want to get together to discuss a television show, has worked perfectly once again. Would one of you care to explain which television show we are here to discuss today?
David Roth: It’s the biggest one available, by mass. And possibly by cultural impact as well. I honestly can’t tell how many people are watching Reacher on Amazon Prime, and I also can’t quite tell how they’re watching it—ironically, meta-ironically, in the same straight-faced and quietly berserk way that millions of Americans watch NCIS. But I believe it is a rich and important text. Or, at any rate, a physically enormous and sociopathic text.
Chris Thompson: You’d have to be pretty horrifyingly irony-poisoned to only ironically watch a show where a guy throws a charcoal grill into a villain’s car in order to bring it to a stop. Like, do you even have a soul?
DR: Well, I agree. I think Reacher is both totally fine and enjoyable as a junky action product and kind of delightful as a chunk of true tonal/cultural weirdness. It’s the campiest thing being made by any studio or network at this moment by a damn sight, for instance, and yet I feel like it would be decently enjoyable for a viewer who either didn’t pick up on any of that or just ignored it. There is no wrong way to appreciate a tremendous man firing a barbecue grill into a speeding car, is I guess my point.
TL: I’m glad that the barbecue grill has come up so early on in this chat, because I have had a few conversations with people over the last few weeks centered around the question that Roth raised, about whether I am watching this show earnestly, ironically, or meta-ironically. The only thing that pops into my head when that question comes up is a single, purifying sentence: “Reacher threw a grill at a guy.” It clangs around in my head like a prayer, and I think explains pretty neatly what the appeal of the show is. It’s fun to watch a show in which the protagonist, without the aid of any kind of Super Serum you’d find in a Marvel story, comes equipped with both the physical prowess and disposition necessary to throw a grill at a guy.
DR: They made a TV show about a guy whose creator describes him, in one of the dozens of books written about the character, as having “hands the size of dinner plates.” And they stayed true to that vision, and as close as the realities of actual human physical proportion allows to that observation vis-a-vis hand-size.
Justin Ellis: He is thick, he is meaty, and he tears through bad guys as quickly as he goes through consignment store Carhartt apparel. Without having read the books, I’ll say there is great appeal in Reacher the television show because it hits so many of the notes of the cheap and rowdy action shows of the 1980s, where a hero rolls into town and just happens to solve mysteries and throw guys through a plate glass window, or a team of misfits decides to take down the mob through a series of violent shenanigans. The alchemy between cheapness and not having to use too much of your brain power hits a noncommittal sweet spot in TV, especially if you don’t want to get drawn into the world of cop procedurals. Instead, why not enjoy this terrifyingly violent show about faux-cops who “play outside the law.”
CT: Yes! It’s like if Jessica Fletcher put her brain inside of The Terminator.
TL: We’re maybe getting ahead of ourselves a little bit, though, so I’ll briefly run through the plot of Reacher Season 2, which we all finished watching last night. Jack Reacher is a gigantic and possibly sociopathic ex-military investigator (is that a real job? I don’t know) who now spends his days wandering the country with no money or social ties, and always eventually finds himself reluctantly called upon to solve some crime or other, which he does by using Sherlock-style deduction techniques and also killing as many people as possible. In Season 2, he’s faced with trying to solve the murders of several of his former colleagues from the U.S. Army’s Special Investigations Unit (is that a real unit? I don’t know), and to do so he gathers the surviving members of his unit so that they can all go on a vengeful rampage against the people who killed their friends. Did I miss anything?
CT: Not really! Reacher is a gigantic, hyper-violent hobo brain-genius with a heart of gold, who lately moves as if his spine has been replaced with an umbrella rod and whose violence has moved from the necessary (choking a guy to death only after the guy tried to kill him) to the sadistic (coldly executing a guy who is lying disabled in a hospital bed). But he’s good! He’s the hero.
DR: So one thing that’s worth noting is that Reacher, as a person, Has A Code. He respects people that Have A Code as a general rule—there’s a great non sequitur in Season 2 of the show where he approves of firefighters, in general, as Having A Code—and he hates people that take advantage of other people. Enough that he does all the stuff Chris noted, and all kinds of other gnarly stuff. He kills a lot of people over the course of these two seasons of television, and will continue to do so over what I assume will be another 12 or 15 seasons, provided that poor Alan Ritchson, the big handsome dude who plays Reacher, can physically weather the demands of having to turn himself into a living Rob Liefeld drawing.
CT: Ritchson looks very extremely overinflated and broken down in Season 2. It’s a little alarming. Look at what steroids can do to a person.
DR: I give the guy credit for being open about it. He hit the gym and got really big for Season 1—he apparently gained 30 pounds in eight months—to the point where he kind of wrecked his shit. To be bigger and more, like, glazed and roasted poultry-ish in his presentation for the next season, and so took testosterone. He told Men’s Health about it in a matter-of-fact way, which is admirable primarily because every other Hollywood person who does this sort of thing to get huge and veinous for a part mostly talks about how they ate a lot of codfish.
TL: One thing that I do find kind of perversely refreshing about this show's depiction of the Jack Reacher character is how willing it is to let him be a frightening sadist. Like you said Roth, he Has A Code, and we’ve seen plenty of action movies and television shows about big strong guys who Have A Code, but those shows and movies never really tend to reckon with the fact that their heroic avatar of justice is also spending all of his time racking up a huge body count. I give Reacher credit for its willingness to actually zoom in on and sit with Reacher’s violence, and to not even necessarily try to excuse it. The show left me with the sense that this guy genuinely loves to light people up with guns and fists, and you just kind of have to lay there and accept that while watching him pump 250 bullets into an unarmed man who wronged him.
DR: Yeah, Reacher does not really seem to have feelings, beyond I guess “the desire for vengeance” and, surprisingly but kind of gratifyingly, an intermittent capacity for horniness. Which is kind of an interesting choice in writing a character, and paradoxically or not less limiting than the normal gloss on it, which is to have your action lead be just that brutal but then also make sure there’s one scene where he’s like drinking whiskey and looking sorrowfully into a mirror. Reacher, and Reacher, does not do this; the viewer is not asked to accept that this is a real guy with real emotions, which I think helps. It makes for some of the funnier moments in the show, though. I’m thinking specifically of a big fight against a biker gang in Seasn 2 where he and his homies just murder like a dozen people with their bare hands/whatever is laying around a parking lot and then Reacher’s just like, “I want a burger.”
JE: I think this is specifically where Alan Ritchson kind of shines as an actor? He is bulky and sexy in a “we’re going to see Thunder From Down Under at The Riviera” kind of way, but he has more charisma than a replacement level former-wrestler type who could have easily been cast in this show. Reacher, the character, is not written as terrifically witty or clever, but functionally for this kind of show you need the protagonist to pop off one-liners to get from scene to scene, or punctuate an especially ridiculous fight, and Ritchson delivers in that respect.
CT: I felt like Season 2 of the show was somewhat less committed to the idea of Reacher as a genuine hero. Not because the show in any detectable way objects to his violence, but because it does in places seem to just be almost like gang warfare: These are my comrades and we will murder anyone who fucks with us. Also in an effort to introduce a bunch of side characters the plot really becomes too confused and cluttered for Reacher to have the clear-eyed sense of purpose that he does in the first season, even when he’s like ripping out some dude’s eyeball in a prison bathroom. I guess the first season really benefited from the Roscoe and Finlay characters sort of having their own codes, and the three of them having to earn each other’s trust and loyalty.
DR: Yeah, I agree with that. In the first season, where Reacher blows into a small Southern town and just absolutely fucks up every bad guy he can while warily having to make common cause with these other stubborn but mostly righteous characters, there’s something kind of mythic about it all, and also about Reacher himself. In Season 2, which involves not just more other characters but the kind of globetrotting stuff I associate with Bourne Identity movies—just on a budget, so it’s like “different locations in the United States that can be doubled by Metro Toronto”-trotting—the beats are more familiar. I think tonally it stays on that weird/funny knife-edge of being self-aware without tipping into winky “so that just happened” stuff. It’s just less my kind of thing. I prefer Rural Reacher to the Urban Reacher of Season 2, just as I prefer Punching Reacher to Shooting Reacher. Obviously “hucking a Little Green Egg into a moving car from 15 yards away” is the final form, but you have to pace yourself with that.
CT: A funny thing about Reacher’s entourage in Season 2 is how a series of flashbacks suggest very strongly that Reacher assembled a rag-tag group of paper-pushers and singer-songwriters and turned them into a merciless bloodthirsty cult of murderers, but how that actually ruled and was benevolent.
I’m making it seem more and more like I was ironically enjoying this show. I would say my enjoyment of Season 2 was less ironic and more begrudging. It’s still wildly entertaining, but is somewhat more off-putting than the first season. What innocent times, those sun-drenched days in Margrave.
TL: Yeah I was dying at the flashback scene where Reacher, using his incredibly powerful and large mind, deduces that his new team of investigators hasn’t bonded enough, and so brings them to a bar where he knows they will get menaced by some other military jerks, just so that they can start a huge, violent brawl with those jerks that surely hospitalized several people. And then we meet some of this crew years later, after they’ve all left the military, and for whatever reason they are still incredibly deadly hand-to-hand combatants. Like, the guy who plays the funny, charming rascal in the group just walks around with brass knuckles all the time, apparently because he often has cause to use them?
DR: For all the insane stuff that we’ve laid out here, Lee Child’s vision of what a military policeman is and does is maybe the wildest. Like as far as I know they do not do any of this shit, and certainly are not lighting up drug cartels in elaborate-ish stings gone wrong. Child just ran the numbers on Army x Cop x Large and Reacher generated like fucking Tayne, and he took it from there.
CT: I got pulled over one time for speeding in Fort Belvoir, and I assure you the person who approached my window was not McBain. Had it been Reacher, I would’ve ended the day with my upper half ripped off and lying in a ditch.
DR: I think Reacher would respect you, Chris. You have a code.
TL: OK now that we’ve really taken a dive into the artistic vision of this television show about a guy who once kicked a car so hard that its airbag deployed, maybe we should return to the silly stuff. What was your favorite moment from this season? I think mine was probably when two stereotypical NYPD officers, one dirty and one virtuous, stood in a living room and shouted at each other, for like 60 seconds, about who cared more about 9/11.
CT: That was an incredible scene, made all the better by their over-the-top New York affectations. I think mine was the scene where the big boss villain, played by Robert Patrick, who is always just walking around the same stretch of the same huge hangar building, finally decides that Reacher is un-killable and offers (over the phone) to bribe him instead, and Reacher is like, “I want to throw you out of a helicopter.” A totally sincere and unironic laugh-out-loud moment, for me.
DR: And then a smash cut to the credits! You simply cannot beat that as a summary of what this show is, and what it is like when it’s working. I think that’s my favorite moment, too, but in the interest of spreading things out I will add the one where Reacher uses Starlin Castro as an alias. Of all the other weird canonical things about Reacher, the fact that he’s a Yankee fan—and, given the use the show makes of Ron Hassey in the first season, a fellow member of the Remember Some Guys community—delights me. Sociopathic army brat the size of a Nissan Sentra, wandering the earth with nothing but a toothbrush to his name, violently righting wrongs and wondering whether D.J. LeMahieu has any productive seasons left.
JE: We simply must talk about the moment where Reacher and the gang have to do some hacking to figure out the password of a dead former teammate. The speed at which they unfurl something approximating deductive reasoning, leaping from “he liked baseball” to “his favorite player was Roberto Clemente, who died in a crash, so show some damn respect,” to “actually his one true real hero was, in fact, you Reacher!” And sure enough, as the final seconds countdown on this hack (because of course there is a Roland Emmerich-esque countdown clock on this), they type in “R-E-A-C-H-E-R” and ding! They get access to the secret files. Phenomenal work.
CT: Justin, I was, like, screaming and laughing and stomping around during this sequence. It should not have worked, and in fact did not work, and yet ……. It absolutely worked.
DR: This is the part that’s hard to explain about the show’s appeal. And, I gather, about the books’ appeal, too. This is all very silly, and it sort of knows that it’s silly, but it doesn’t really break kayfabe at all and so it manages to work on its own terms both as detective show shit and as goofy ultraviolent comedy.
CT: This was also a moment, though, where I was definitely expecting something either much much much more clever or much funnier. When it was just, like, “He has so much RESPECT for Reacher,” I did feel very gently insulted, as a viewer.
DR: Oh absolutely. As gently as Reacher does anything. This is a tricky balance to maintain, and I don’t know that the show walks the tightrope so much as it repeatedly punches and kicks the tightrope while sneering various insults at it in this season. I tend to grade it on a curve, though, because I think action stuff has gotten kind of rote of late and because action comedy as a genre has always been more Bad Comedy Plus Shootouts, a swole guy with a gun going “hell nah” while a dozen henchmen shoot at him. Like I think it is a gag, broadly speaking, that this character made his former boss’s name his password. I think the show knows that it’s a gag. But it is presented in such a tonally strange way that it’s tough to know how to field it.
TL: Going back to the fact that Reacher threw a grill at a guy, I do think a lot of why this show works for me is just down to the simple fact that Alan Ritchson is genuinely humongous. One consistent drawback of the proliferation of gritty action scenes, which put a real focus on meaty, tactile sensation of every punch and kick, is that it puts you in a position of having to believe that a punch thrown by some 165-pound actor would actually make a sound like that. You run into no such trouble while watching Reacher. I genuinely believe that if Alan Ritchson punched me in the chest, I would die instantly.
What about you guys? How many blows could you survive from our big, beloved psycho?
DR: This is one of the funniest things, in retrospect, about the two Jack Reacher movies that Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie made. They’re fine enough movies, if also totally straight-faced and glum, but Literally Tom Cruise as Reacher is basically the opposite of how I think the character was intended to be, and I feel like tonally the show feels much closer to the vision than the grim and rainy McQuarrie version. Also it’s funny that Tom Cruise read a book about, or maybe was just told about, a character who is canonically 6-foot-5 and 250 lbs. and was like, “That’s just like me, I should play him.”
Anyway, to Tom’s question I could easily “get the drop” on Jack Reacher and defeat him in combat.
CT: I think if he punched anywhere near my head, I would die.
JE: I would simply hire a squadron of goons, put them in matching jumpsuits and send wave after wave of these lambs into the human woodchipper that is Jack Reacher. But this is only phase 1, because it is important to annoy him as much as possible. Phase 2 would involve luring him into a shark tank, which I am pretty sure he would easily clear by somehow ripping the jaws off each shark, until only one is left cowering in fear. At this point I’m sure Reacher would deduce my precise location using knowledge of my high school-era interests, and then he would kick me so hard my skeleton would separate from my body and fly across four zip codes.