Within the last week I read a comment about Chris McQuarrie‘s Jack Reacher (Paramount, 12.21) being “a ’90s urban actioner,” which the commenter intended, I gathered, as some kind of putdown. Well, take out the negative inference and he’s dead right — Reacher is a kind of old-fashioned actioner in a ’90s or ’80s or ’70s vein (can’t decide which) but in a highly refreshing, intelligent, follow-the-clues-and-watch-your-back fashion.

It has no digital bullshit, no explosions, and none of that top-the-last-idiot-action-movie crap. Jack Reacher believes in the basics, and I for one was delighted even though it doesn’t exactly re-invent the wheel.

Honestly? I was fairly satisfied but not that blown away by the final 25%, but the first 75% plays very tight and true and together, and Tom Cruise, as the titular character, has the confidence and presence and steady-as-she-goes vibe of a hero who doesn’t have to reach or scream or emphasize anything in order to exude that steely-stud authority that we all like. Reacher is just a bang-around Pittsburgh dirty-cop movie with a kind of Samurai-styled outsider (Cruise) working with a sharp-eyed, straight-dope attorney (Rosamund Pike) trying to uncover who stinks and what’s wrong and who needs to be beaten or killed or whatever.

It’s just an unpretentious, elegantly written programmer that’s nowhere near the class or depth of Witness, say, certainly not in the matter of departmental corruption and general venality, but it does move along with an agreeably lean, get-it-right attitude. I love that Cruise’s Reacher doesn’t drive a car or carry an ID or even a modest bag of clothing and toiletries. He washes his one T-shirt and one pair of socks every night in the sink.

I somehow got the idea that the Jack Reacher character, as written by Jack Grant/Lee Child, was some brawny badass who strode around and pulverized the bad guys like he was Paul Bunyan or something, largely because he was a mountain-sized 6′ 5″. I’ve never read a Reacher novel but the movie is not some brute kickass machismo thing but a largely cerebral whodunit that believes in dialogue and playing it slow and cool and holding back and pausing between lines and all that less-is-more stuff. It has a bit of a Sherlock Holmes thing going on between the beatings and threats and car chases.

Jack Reacher basically delivers what urban thrillers used to deliver before John Woo came along in the early ’90s and fucked everything up with flying ballet crap and two-gun, crossed-arm blam-blam. It has a little bit of a nostalgic Walter Hill atmosphere going on, particularly in the fashion of The Driver (’78). It also reminded me of the stripped-down style and natural, unhurried pacing of John Flynn‘s The Outfit (’73), which starred Robert Duvall (who plays a small but key supporting role in Jack Reacher). If you know that film, you know what I’m talking about.

Reacher actually uses a plot that adds up and makes sense. It might be a little too old-fashioned in the final act as a feeling takes over that the gas is running low, but at least it doesn’t feel as if it’s been thrown together as a series of wild-ass digital set pieces with an indecipherable editing scheme. It has a brain, and it trusts that its viewers do also. I’ve just decided that Jack Reacher has been written and shot in the spirit of 1979…okay?

I’ll finish this tomorrow morning, but Jack Reacher is/was a modest but very pleasant popcorn surprise. Cheers to director-writer McQuarrie and producer-star Cruise and Pike and costars Werner Herzog (cash that paycheck!) playing a husky-eyed, Russian-accented baddie plus Richard Jenkins and David Oyelowo and others. Cheers also to the straight unfussy lensing of dp Caleb Deschanel.