Reacher is a cheerfully violent action series that knows exactly what it’s about

Prime Video’s Jack Reacher series sees the literary action man delivering beatdowns to whoever deserves it. Lucky for critic Travis Johnson—and for us viewers—there’s a lotta people who deserve it.

Several times in the debut season of Reacher, the titular character has to contend with a group of mooks who have been sent to put some fear into him or lay some damage on him. The inevitable result is that the big guy, played with laconic charm by DC Universe veteran Alan Ritchson, blasts through them in a heartbeat, meeting much the same resistance as a bull wading into a river.

It’s wonderfully cathartic stuff. In one diner-set altercation, he wraps some poor guy’s head in a tablecloth and then knocks him into a coma with a rapid succession of elbow strikes. I cheered. Hell, I nearly cried.

Such is the appeal of pulp lit hero Jack Reacher, the brainchild of writer Lee Child, who published the tough nut’s first adventure Killing Floor in 1997. Since then he’s starred in a further 24 novels and a handful of short stories, which speaks to his popularity. Reacher the man is a kind of wandering samurai/knight errant figure.

A former military policeman with a service record that would make Rambo flinch, he spends his time travelling by bus from town to town, getting into adventures, and basically living the life that Jules aspired to in Pulp Fiction. He’s built for it; he’s a 6’4 master of hand-to-hand combat with a keen investigative mind, his own immutable code of ethics, and no compunction about doing violence to people who deserve it. And he meets a lot of people who deserve it, which is great for us.

In Reacher, the first season of which adapts Killing Floor, he’s only recently arrived in the sleepy town of Margrave, Georgia, when he’s arrested for murder. He’s innocent (of this one, at least) and when more bodies start piling up, he teams up with a pair of local cops (Malcolm Goodwin and Willa Fitzgerald) to figure out the score. Through an unlikely coincidence, Reacher finds he has a personal stake in the case, which means whoever’s responsible is probably not long for this earth.

What unfolds is eight episodes’ worth of perfectly pitched pulp action. Reacher, in any of his incarnations, is not a particularly complex character, and he has not particularly complex exploits. That’s a fact, not a flaw: sophistication is jettisoned in favour of tight plotting, propulsive momentum, and bone-crunching action.

Our hero is a honking great male power fantasy—a Sherlock Schwarzenegger, if you will. He’s always the smartest guy in the room, he’s always the toughest guy in the room, and he is never, ever shaken by whatever dire circumstances in which he finds himself. He has as few attachments as possible; when we meet him, he owns around two hundred bucks, the clothes he’s standing in, and a toothbrush. In effect, he’s the James Bond of the 21st century; a violent, virile role model for a new age.

Perhaps that sounds simplistic, but it’s incredibly hard to pull off without being obnoxious. Reacher manages it largely by dint of making sure the book series’ appeal is translated to screen with as many of its core elements intact as possible. The last time Jack Reacher leapt off the page he was played by Tom Cruise, which was only one of the many changes wrought on the character for two movies, 2012’s Jack Reacher and 2016’s Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.

Here, to borrow a phrase from Pope John Paul II, it is as it was. The TV Reacher is recognisably the literary Reacher, and fans of the books—or fans of efficient, fun action thrillers in general—are in for a hell of a ride.