Since the announcement of Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher — adapted from one of a series of novels by Lee Child featuring the eponymous protagonist – the sturdy fan base of the author has been up in arms, and it isn’t difficult to see why. According to the official website of Child and Reacher, these are the man’s measurements: 6’5”, 220-250 lbs., 50” chest. Hair: Dirty-blond. The character, in short, should be played by a muscle-mountain like Dolph Lundgren. The screen, instead, is occupied by an actor who, in tabloid photographs, barely managed to scrape Katie Holmes’s chin.

Even so, at first, we may wonder if all that Tom Cruise backlash wasn’t an overreaction. When the London stage, earlier this year, welcomed an all-black version of Julius Caesar, we didn’t hear of pitchfork-wielding Shakespeare fans in a froth about the Roman senate appearing to house the cast of The Color Purple. This is what interpretations do. Books are books. Movies are movies. This is what artistic liberty is.

Seeing the film, though, we realise why Cruise is so wrong for the part. It’s not because he isn’t tall enough to play Jack Reacher, but because his screen presence isn’t big enough to embody a mythical archetype. When we first hear of Reacher, he’s dropped off the grid — a ghost. He has no credit history, no known address, no PO Box even. This much is not a problem. Cruise plays a similarly shadowy character in the Mission: Impossible movies — but where those films are about gadgets and ingenuity, Jack Reacher requires its leading man to routinely employ his fists against men at least a head taller.

After a while, it begins to look silly, like Salman Khan in the Dabangg movies. Reacher even gets to mouth punch dialogues, as when he points a gun at a glass-eyed villain (Werner Herzog, of all people) and intones, “I was born in October. When I get to my birthday I’m going to pull the trigger. One, two...” At least in Dabangg, we’re not meant to take any of this seriously.

The film, set in Pittsburgh, is essentially a transplanted Western. Reacher is the The Man with No Name, the iconoclastic drifter and outsider who steps into a (metaphorical) war zone, ticks people off, sets things right, and rides off into the sunset. (Okay, he takes a bus.) McQuarrie even treats the (pulp) material like a Western, right down to the barroom brawl.

The initial scenes — detailing a sniper on a rooftop picking off apparently random civilians who stroll across his scope (and what a time for this film to appear, on the trail of the horrific Newton killings) — are set to jangling music, but entire stretches thereon unfold in silence. If this had been the frontier, we would have heard the wind whistle. With all this jaw-clenched mythmaking punctuated by cynical quips, we needed someone who could channel the best of Clint Eastwood and Humphrey Bogart. Which living actor has that kind of stature?

McQuarrie opts for an unflashy, deadpan style that unfortunately ends up flattening the action — the film frequently runs out of steam. This is the kind of labyrinthine thriller where the shadows have shadows, and we’re meant to hang on to revelations that hint that the sniper may be innocent, but the game is given away at midpoint. There are no further surprises, and we’re left with nothing to look forward to but the climactic confrontation, where Cruise throws away an automatic weapon so that he can bury his bare knuckles into his opponent, who’s, of course, a head taller.

A cracker of a supporting cast, including Richard Jenkins and Robert Duvall, does help matters, though the most pointed part is played by Rosamund Pike, as a lawyer who co-opts Reacher in her quest to keep the sniper off death row. In a no-nonsense pulp thriller, this couple would have tumbled into a sweaty bed en route to a hard-boiled happily-ever-after, but in these mythical climes, she has to be content with leaning against his arm. How can she take his name when he has none?

Jack Reacher

Genre: Action

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Cast: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins

Storyline: A war veteran investigates a sniper shooting that’s not what it appears to be.

Bottomline: A coulda-been-thrilling pulp plot undone by miscasting