It's not the acting or the action that makes "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" inferior to the original 2012 hit. It's the story.
The first film, "Jack Reacher," established the title character as a brilliant, brutal loner dedicated to justice. He's a former military officer turned drifter, unfettered by emotional ties, motivated purely by exacting righteousness.
What makes an archetypal character like this fun to watch is an unpredictable story, where the audience and protagonist together uncover the mystery. The 2012 film achieved this beautifully, packing action into a compelling thriller that developed the villains as much as the hero.
In "Never Go Back," the bad guys are one-dimensional caricatures and the lone wolf is driven by protecting a teenager whom he insists from the start isn't his daughter. This leaves the film riding on its action sequences and the charm of its central characters, played by Tom Cruise and Cobie Smulders. And while they're incredibly appealing, they can't do more than the story allows.
Cruise, who has made himself this generation's ultimate action star, is perfect as Jack Reacher. He's steely, strong and almost accidentally handsome. The ageless actor does most of his own stunts and effectively uses his eyes to convey his character's guarded sensitivity.
Smulders, who's played a small role in the "Avengers" films, proves herself an action star and leading lady as Susan Turner, an Army major who has taken over Reacher's post in the military police force. Turner is investigating the murders of two soldiers in Afghanistan when she's removed from her office and jailed on espionage charges.
Reacher comes to her aid, but another official warns him off, taunting him with a pending paternity lawsuit that claims Reacher fathered a now 15-year-old girl. Reacher denies it, but goes after the girl (Danika Yarosh) anyway. Suddenly, he'll do anything to protect her.
This contrivance undoes the suspension of disbelief. Nothing about Reacher's character suggests he's yearning for fatherhood, and yet she becomes his main motivation.
"Never Go Back" is based on Lee Child's 18th Reacher novel. The 2012 film was adapted from a much earlier work in the series, so perhaps Reacher's desire to be a dad is covered in the volumes in between.
The teenager is the pawn in this story as Reacher and Turner try to uncover corruption high in the military ranks. They find that beyond a cover-up of the soldiers' murders, crooked officials may be supplying weapons to insurgents in the Middle East. The villain appears to be a white guy in a suit with an American flag pin on his lapel, but he isn't named and doesn't speak until the film's third act.
Meanwhile, a trenchcoated heavy (Patrick Heusinger) is tailing Reacher, Turner and the teen. He's the catalyst for the chases and fight scenes, which director Edward Zwick cuts together so quickly, their grace is hard to appreciate.
Still, there are some breathtaking action sequences, including a chase through New Orleans' French Quarter that sees Reacher scaling wrought-iron balconies above a bustling Halloween parade on Bourbon Street.
Smulders handles her share of the action and holds her own with Cruise, which is great to see. Turner may be female, but her character's depth and strength matches Reacher's. With Smulders and Yarosh on camera almost as much as Cruise, "Never Go Back" doubles the number of key women from the 2012 film. If only the story was as good.
"Jack Reacher: Never Go Back," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "sequences of violence and action, some bloody images, language and thematic elements." Running time: 118 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen at www.twitter.com/APSandy .