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Why Jack Reacher is gaming's greatest hero

Child's play.

I was sad to learn recently that Harold Pinter and I will never be best mates, and not just because he is dead. Nor because he was a Nobel Prize-winning literary genius, while my writing career peaked in the late 2000s, when I was knocking out three Wii shovelware reviews a day.

According to Pinter's wife, Antonia Fraser, "Harold did not understand the mentality of one who is keenly awaiting the next Lee Child." Thus, alas, Harold Pinter would not understand me, because I love that shit.

For those who don't know, Lee Child is the author of a hugely successful series of thrillers. They all star Jack Reacher, a burly ex-military policeman who spends his time drifting around America. He tries to mind his own business but endlessly wanders into trouble. There is always a mystery to solve and a wrong to be righted, and this is always achieved with excessive amounts of violence. Imagine Murder, She Wrote except Angela Lansbury has a buzz cut and giant pecs, and instead of writing jolly novels about murder, she uses her typewriter to stove people's heads in.

Arguably a better choice for the role of Reacher than Tom Cruise.

There have been two movies, both starring Tom Cruise as Reacher - a casting that enraged fans from the moment it was announced. The main complaint was that Cruise bears little physical resemblance to the Reacher of the books, who is 6"5 and 18 stone. In terms of staying true to the source material, they'd have been better off casting Adrian Chiles.

But it's not all Tom Cruise's fault the films are so bad. They were never going to be great, because Jack Reacher was never going to make a great movie character. And that's because he's a video game character.

For evidence of this, just read some of the books. (As they're all basically the same it doesn't matter which, or in what order, in the same way it doesn't matter whether you view the classic Murder She Wrote episode "Hooray for Homicide" before "Murder to a Jazz Beat", or "Corned Beef and Carnage" after "No Laughing Murder.")

They often read like video game Let's Plays, as transcribed by a bored stenographer with literary aspirations: "Reacher punched the man in the stomach. The man staggered backwards. Reacher stamped on his foot and smashed his elbow into the man's chest. The man tried to hit him back, but Reacher grabbed his wrist and swung so hard the man punched himself in his own face. The man's nose imploded, crumpling like a Kinder Egg left in a car on a hot day in July."

I'm paraphrasing, but you get the idea. The Jack Reacher series is the literary equivalent of Call of Duty. Every instalment is solidly constructed, expertly polished, easy to consume, and immensely satisfying. Each one is comfortingly familiar, yet packed with its own gripping twists and extravagant set pieces. Lee Child is a one-man Activision, churning out another blockbuster every year with unshakeable regularity (he famously starts each new book on 1 September, as he has done for 20 years, and finishes them in less time than it takes me to do a baby.)

If a short Reacher is acceptable, why not a black Reacher? In no way is this an excuse to publish this photograph again.

I like Child's books for the same reasons I like video games. They drop me into a ludicrous but thrilling and compelling world, and I become totally absorbed. I feel the same way about Lara as I do about Reacher - I admire them and identify with them at the same time. I'm awed by the characters' skills, strength, and sheer coolness, knowing I'll never possess any of that. But at the same time, a bit of me feels like I'm the one performing that elegant swan dive off the waterfall, or smashing a man's skull in with an Olivetti A-100.

But when I watch a Reacher movie, I don't feel like I'm Jack Reacher. I don't even feel like I'm looking at Jack Reacher. I'm always aware that I'm watching Tom Cruise pretending to be Jack Reacher, and failing to pull it off. Not because he's too short, but because he's doing Tom Cruise Acting, which involves talking quietly while giving obvious signals that you are bloody furious and liable to go absolutely crackers the second anyone says the wrong thing. I often adopt this acting style when my husband and I are discussing whether the central heating is up too high.

So I could do without any more Jack Reacher films, to be honest. I'm quite happy with the books, and with the daft Flash game, excellently titled Jack Reacher: Never Stop Punching. It's an endless runner where Reacher wanders around smashing an incessant stream of baddies in the face, and in that sense is a lot truer to the books.

As for Harold Pinter, I'm sad he died without ever being able to appreciate the appeal of Jack Reacher. I'd probably go and see his plays if they had less pauses and more punches. Still, I bet he was a massive Call of Duty fan.

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About the Author
Ellie Gibson avatar

Ellie Gibson


Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.

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