Jack Reacher, back in 2012, was no masterpiece, but it's a damn solid action thriller with an admirably unfussy star turn from Tom Cruise, a phenomenally colorful villain played by Werner Herzog, and it is blessed with a plot that splits the difference between "twisty" and "generic as all hell" exactly where you'd like to for the kind of film that's good enough to be remembered with a robust "...oh yeah, I liked that". It is certainly not what it looked like from its ad campaign: a schlocky, paint-by-numbers detective action picture with Tom Cruise's slightly miscast charisma and absolutely nothing else to recommend it.

No, for that, we need to turn to its sequel, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Now, I'm not saying that Never Go Back is "bad". It is, in fact, specifically and conspicuously not "bad". Not being "bad" is the most important thing in the whole world to Never Go Back, while being "good" is no priority at all. It is in this respect a perfect exemplar of the career of director Edward Zwick, replacing Christopher McQuarrie (who has been promoted to making Cruise's Mission: Impossibles), and who previously worked with the producer-star on The Last Samurai, lo these 13 years ago. Since then - and before then, to be strictly fair - Zwick's output has been about as consistent as it is possible for a director to be: never very good & never very bad, but always occupying a very carefully-manicured place of middlebrow respectability. Making an action film is at least a change of pace for the director (unlike everything else he's made in the 21st Century, you'd never suspect it was green-lit in the hopes of snagging a few Oscar nominations), but it feels like his movies: bland direction of actors, unnecessarily wide shots, scenes that move slower than one might wish for. There's also some utterly baffling editing, which isn't a Zwick specialty, as far as I can recall; but anyway, Billy Weber frequently cuts within dialogue scenes to change angles on the same subject, and I'm damned if I know why or ultimately whose fault it is, but it makes the thing feel busy to no real purpose.

The action, this time around, is a perfectly straightforward, clear-cut military thriller. Ex-Army major Jack Reacher (Cruise) has been doing his thing, floating around America & using his training as a high-level member of the military police to right wrongs and make the world safer. His contact at his old job, when he needs help (or likelier, has help to offer), is one Maj. Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), and being an emotionally detached horndog, Reacher can't help but flirt with her. On the day he plans to meet her in Washington, however, bad news comes down: Turner has been relieved of duty, accused of selling secrets, and this appears to be connected to the death of two of her soldiers in Afghanistan. And Reacher decides to prove that she's the innocent victim of a frame-up perpetrated by a deeply corrupt military contractor. And that's pretty much it.

Something about the complete lack of personality is genuinely soothing. This is basically a CBS-style military police procedural, if only they had an Army show to go along with their endless family of Navy shows, and its appeal is largely on the same level: watch a guy, whom we know well enough to basically like, do cop movie things, with the stakes never rising above "stop the bad guys from doing bad stuff", and indeed with the villains barely emerging as personalities at all, let alone as a threat that exists on a greater level than the inconvenience they cause the protagonists (the most prominent antagonist, played by Patrick Heusinger, doesn't even get a name, which I suppose was meant to make him some kind of elemental threat. It didn't work). And on that level, Never Go Back is perfectly serviceable, if unlikely to live in anybody's memory for more than a few days, or hours. It would be easier to swallow back in the '40s, when routine thrillers staring handsome leading men were released by the dozens, and not being especially good or bad was the point. And also, this would have been 70 minutes long. Here in 2016, Never Go Back is one of the only major action movies that involves neither science-fiction nor superheroes, and I don't at all know that it justifies that, but on a lazy afternoon when there's nothing going on and you'd like to have something on the television that requires only a trace of your attention? Yeah, it works.

Sadly, the movie does want to be more than that, and its attempt to bulk up go badly awry. Reacher may be a consummate badass, but he's also a lonely guy, and so Never Go Back provides him with a surrogate family. After he breaks Turner out of military prisoner, they of course end up doing the whole The 39 Steps routine, with just a bit of a modern gloss: Turner is a physical match for Reacher's derring-do, and bristles at his old-school chauvinism, and did I type "modern" when I meant to say "from the 1980s"? Oh, well. Anyway, they run across country and banter, and that would be fine in much the same "I've seen this 30 times and liked it at least 20 of those times, so let's run with it" vibe as everything else the movie has going on. Where things go terribly awry is in the plotline, which may very well actually be the A-plot, of Reacher finding that he might have fathered a daughter some 16 years ago. Now the girl, Sam Dayton (Danika Yarosh) is a target for the bad guys trying to keep Reacher out of the picture, and so he must drag her along to keep her safe. You will be shocked, shocked to learn that Turner and Sam's presence, and their easy camaraderie with each other, teach the brittle alpha male loner something important about having people in your life to care about. It is saccharine boilerplate that massacres the film's rhythm, while adding nothing that's remotely rewarding; Cruise and Yarosh never find their way into anything like the chemistry needed to sell the relationship, and while Smulders is fine at playing a hard-ass military professional, she doesn't soften terribly convincingly. So we're stuck with an action movie that stops so often for scenes of interpersonal relationships that it might actually be more of a character drama than a thriller. But it is a crap character drama, and anytime it tries to be more than a vehicle for Tom Cruise to flash his charisma and say tough guy things, it grinds to halt. And it spends plenty of time doing that.