I'm a conscientious objector when it comes to Tom Cruise pictures. I'll watch them only under protest, with two exceptions: the 1983 teen-sex comedy Risky Business and 1999's Magnolia, which featured the megastar as a Tony Robbins-type motivational speaker.

So it's almost disquieting to hear myself say it, but I actually enjoy Cruise as the Lee Child antihero Jack Reacher - moderately so in 2012's initial adaptation, Jack Reacher, and more so in the new Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.

Disquieting? By all standards of literary decency, Reacher is a preposterous figure.

A former major in the Army's Military Police, he left the service in 1997 after insulting a superior officer, but not before apparently gaining world-class expertise with every weapon made since cavemen wielded clubs.

Oh, and he's expert in the deadliest martial arts known to humankind.

He's now a drifter who travels the nation's highways and byways with no luggage save a folding toothbrush, helping out people in trouble and reducing bad guys by the truckload into quivering masses of broken bone and jellified muscle.

Yet, somehow, Reacher gets under your skin with his mordant wit, razor-sharp intelligence, and existentialist intensity.

Which happens to be a perfect vehicle for Cruise's particular skill-set. While the star annoys me to no end as the holier-and-cockier-than-thou Ethan Hunt in the dull Mission Impossible franchise, he has won me over in this one.

He was solid in director Christopher McQuarrie's clunky 2012 Jack Reacher, which was fun despite a limping, convoluted plot line and an absurd turn by Rosamund Pike as a cross between a crusading ACLU lawyer and a drunk, randy Marilyn Monroe.

The sequel, directed with a sure hand by veteran filmmaker Edward Zwick (Defiance, Pawn Sacrifice), is far more successful on every level.

We join Reacher as he's helping the Army bring down a network of human traffickers. In the process, he has developed a flirtatious phone relationship with Army investigator Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders of How I Met Your Mother), who has his old job in Washington. So he decides to visit her.

Bad move. Within hours, Susan is arrested for espionage.

She has been framed. It turns out that her investigation of arms trafficking in Afghanistan has ruffled feathers at a major private military contractor run by an evil former general (Robert Knepper). When Reacher rescues Susan, the evil guy activates a brutal professional assassin (Patrick Heusinger) straight out of the Jason Bourne films.

Smulders is sensational as Susan, playing her as a sexy, tough-as-nails feminist officer.

The film also features a compelling Danika Yarosh (Heroes Reborn) as the troubled teenage daughter of a prostitute who becomes embroiled in Reacher's fight with the evildoers.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is boilerplate material. As crime thrillers go, it's an inferior product with a predictable plot. It succeeds because of its memorable characters and their shifting relationships. There's some nice action and offbeat humor.

And, yes, Cruise is a delight to watch.




Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

3 stars (Out of four stars)

Directed by Edward Zwick. With Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Danika Yarosh, Robert Knepper, Patrick Heusinger. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 58 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (sequences of violence and action, some bloody images, profanity).

Playing at: Area theaters.