JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Old movie Westerns often began with a stranger riding into a troubled town that doesn't know what to make of him. Is he an outlaw, a lawman? In fact, he's usually something in between - an honorable, gunslinging outsider who will help clean up the town, albeit not without shooting a bad guy or two. Today's version of this mysterious loner is Jack Reacher, the hero of "Reacher," a new series from Amazon Prime Video, which specializes in making TV out of popular manly men franchises. They've already done Harry Bosch and Jack Ryan.
Based on "Killing Floor," the first of the bestsellers by Lee Child, this eight-part show offers a superhero for viewers who don't like spandex costumes. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, the brainy, inexpressive Reacher is a weird cross between Mr. Spock and The Incredible Hulk. Alan Ritchson, who boasts abs the size of Evian bottles, stars as Reacher, a war hero and ex-military policeman who now spends his life off the grid, traveling the country with no luggage, using fake names and paying for everything in cash. As the series begins, he's turned up in Margrave, Ga., where an old blues musician he likes supposedly died. There, he's promptly and, of course, wrongly arrested for murdering two men on the night he hit town.
For reasons I won't explain, Reacher sticks around to solve the case. He works alongside the oddly named Roscoe, a sharp female officer he finds fetching - she's played by Willa Fitzgerald - and a buttoned up Black detective Finlay - that's Malcolm Goodwin - who's just moved to Margrave from Boston. As the body count soars, in part courtesy of Reacher, the trio finds itself knee-deep in dirty cops, corrupt officials, nasty rich kids, corporate scoundrels, murderous Venezuelan thugs and a conspiracy delirious enough for QAnon. When not snapping goons' arms like toothpicks, which he does more often than you might think, Reacher always finds time to remind us how smart he is. Here, he goes all Sherlock Holmes on Detective Finlay.
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MALCOLM GOODWIN: (As Detective Finlay) You're always so confident in your theories.
ALAN RITCHSON: (As Jack Reacher) As confident as I am that you went to Harvard, you're recently divorced, and you quit smoking in the last six months.
GOODWIN: (As Detective Finlay) How'd you come up with that?
RITCHSON: (As Jack Reacher) My friend back there, Baker, he called you a Beantown b****. And from all appearances, you're well-educated, but you took a job in the middle of nowhere with people that look nothing like you. You're stubborn. You have a chip on your shoulder. You don't care if your co-workers like you. A guy like that doesn't go to BU. He goes to Harvard to show those blue-blood a******* what he's capable of. Am I right?
GOODWIN: (As Detective Finlay) About going to Harvard? Yes.
POWERS: Call me retrograde, but I founder "Reacher" entertaining. It clips right along, is reasonably suspenseful and has a vivid cast. As Roscoe and Finlay, Fitzgerald and Goodwin are really terrific. They bring an emotional richness to their characters that isn't in the script. As for Ritchson, whose deadpan line readings sometimes made me think of early Clint Eastwood, he gives Reacher the intimidating man-mountain presence missing from the movie version played by bantamweight Tom Cruise. Ritchson's Reacher could use Cruise's as a sock puppet.
But while I raced happily through the series, I didn't feel altogether clean about it. Although Reacher may be a righteous dude, he's also a vigilante who early in the show announces his plans - I'm going to find out who did it and then kill them all. He's not being metaphorical or hyperbolic. No crook ever goes to trial in a Jack Reacher story. In fact, his approach seems so ultra violent on screen that the show, unlike the books, feels the need to make jokes about it, working hard to convince us that he's not a psychopath but a bearer of justice. He punishes child abusers and defends women being mistreated by their boyfriends. Why, he even rescues a dog whose owner is treating it cruelly.
Now, unlike most of his justice-dispensing forebears in pop culture - such as Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer or Eastwood's original "Dirty" Harry Callahan - Reacher doesn't come off as morally dodgy or politically conservative. Like "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," he's essentially a vigilante that liberals can love. He hates bullies, is drawn to strong women and feels more comfortable with Black barbers than with prosperous white people. His protege Neagley is a mixed-race woman.
Where those gunslinger heroes helped honest folks in a Wild West that hadn't yet created a civilized system of law, this series conjures our post-civilized present in which that system has frayed. It speaks to an America in which many people, liberal and conservative, are filled with rage because they believe the system doesn't deliver the justice they want to see delivered. "Reacher" offers the pleasures of an invincible avenger who satisfies our fantasies of payback and lets us see them as moral. And have I mentioned that I really enjoyed it?
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
John Powers reviewed the new series "Reacher" on Amazon Prime Video beginning Friday. On tomorrow's show, we'll discuss legislative efforts in states across the country to restrict what teachers can discuss in classrooms and what books they can assign in K-12 schools, colleges and universities. We'll talk with Jeffrey Sachs, who's tracking those new laws and bills for PEN America, a writers organization dedicated to free speech. I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS' "MACK THE KNIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.