Wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. The four virtues of Stoicism, echoed throughout Western masculinity for two millennia. You are detached, but concerned for the pursuit of virtue. You are passionate, but not completely driven by your baser instincts. You are smart, but you are not an egghead, nose in books all day, disengaged from the struggle for justice happening all around you. Strong, but not inherently violent. Cunning, but not manipulative.
The stoic forms the basis for many of our greatest stories: Odysseus as he endured trials on his journey home or Gary Cooper in High Noon, staring down an outlaw gang even after the whole town has abandoned him. As Western culture has integrated psychoanalysis, valuing the “feeling man” over the “doing man,” the male stoic has become a more fringe figure with less cultural capital than he once had.
But he’s around, scurrying in the dirt, doing what needs to be done. And right now, he is on Amazon Prime Video, waging a one-man war with a corrupt mayor who walks around with a cane that has a giant diamond on its head. Reacher, a new web series based on Lee Child’s blockbuster Jack Reacher novels, takes stoicism to wild new heights, mashing Mickey Spillane’s two-fisted detectives with a Kerouacian mystic drifter. This heady mixture is a tribute to the virtues of masculine self-control that is so extreme you stand in awe of its excess.
Once a devastatingly effective military investigator, Reacher retired from the army and abandoned everything. His parents are dead. He has no wife, no children, no permanent attachments, a few scattered friends. He goes where the wind takes him, carrying nothing but his passport, some cash, and a French war medal.
Reacher finds himself in Margrave, Georgia—adapted from Killing Floor, the first ever Jack Reacher adventure—because he’s tracking down info about Blind Blake, a blues singer and Paramount Records legend, who his brother, John, claimed died in Margrave. Reacher has a Harry Smith-level of knowledge and enthusiasm about the early blues, despite not owning a portable radio, CDs or tapes. (In the books, he employs an internal mental stereo system to “listen” to jams. This is not canon in the show… yet.) In Bad Luck and Trouble, the eleventh book in the Jack Reacher series, Reacher himself tells everyone why he doesn’t even carry a second shirt: “Slippery slope. I carry a spare shirt, pretty soon I’m carrying spare pants. Then I’d need a suitcase. Next thing I know, I’ve got a house and a car and a savings plan and I’m filling out all kinds of forms.”
Reacher is also, and this can’t be emphasized enough, huge and insanely strong: 6-foot-5, 250 pounds of muscle with a 50-inch-wide chest. The manner in which Child conveys Reacher’s hugeness and beefiness is incredible. “Hands the size of supermarket chickens,” surviving a bullet to the chest on account of his hulking pecs, sporting a “fearsome tan.” Over the course of Reacher’s eight episodes, we see him crush three cellphones and break a man’s fibula and tibia with his bare hands.
The last time Hollywood tried to bring the magic of Reacher to the screen, they opted for Tom Cruise in the title role. Cruise, for those who do not know, is a tiny man who believes in Scientology. His action oeuvre is lengthy and storied, but his expertise is not seeming unstoppable. He is clever and quick-witted—a handsome underdog who wins by sheer force of will. Reacher is not an underdog.
Cruise was widely derided by Reacher Creatures all over the world—including Child himself, who said that he “…think(s) that the size thing is important to certain parts of the narrative. Reacher has got to scare people and you can do that so much easier with one glance of this huge animal rather than a normal-sized actor.”
In Reacher, “this huge animal” refers to Alan Ritchson. I will not mince words: this sumbitch is a slab of rock-hard marbled beef with an unnerving square jaw and blue eyes that cut holes through steel. As if to make up for the embarrassment of casting Cruise the first time around, Reacher emphasizes the character’s size first and foremost. He towers over everyone else in the show, seems entirely too big for every car he is sitting in, frequently devouring the whole screen with exhibitions of carved musculature.
While I was watching Reacher, I thought back to the way Game of Thrones depicted Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, George R.R. Martin’s terrifying, seven-foot-tall vision of pure sadistic malice who demolishes everyone and everything that the Lannisters throw his way. Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, the actor and bodybuilder who portrayed Clegane, is a big ol’ dude: 6-foot-9, 300+ pounds of muscle. An actual strongman.
But if you watch his (extraordinarily brutal) fight with Oberyn Martell, aka the Red Viper, he just doesn’t seem… that large. With Pedro Pascal’s Viper dancing around him as he stands there like a big pile of laundry, he appears far from a gigantic, threatening menace. Where’s the size? The horror? Where is the man of nightmares I was promised? Martin emphasizes the Mountain’s surprising speed and lethality in the books, but here he’s just a big sociopathic goon.
Ritchson is not nearly as tall as Björnsson (6-foot-2, or this author’s height), but the way he is filmed, in medium shots where his bulk eats up screen space, makes him seem massive. Ritchson in motion is everything that Thrones’ dishwater-dull take on The Mountain isn’t. In one scene in the first episode, we see Reacher, thrown in prison because he was drifting through town when a murder happened, take on four thugs who have been sent to kill him in the bathroom. Be advised: it is comically brutal. Reacher, towering over everyone else in the brawl, seems like he is devouring dudes with his very flesh—flying across the room, breaking limbs at will, gouging a dude’s eye out with one swift motion of his thumb. Up until this point, he’s been a huge guy reacting to everything with measured scrutiny, but when his rage uncorks, he seems like an unstoppable demon; an inevitable force. It’s wild stuff.
We see him brutalize toughs in a variety of depressing suburban interiors, yes, but we also watch him extract information about everyone he meets via short glances, break down crime scenes like Sherlock Holmes, slyly set up traps to lure his enemies into fists or bullets, take out his enemies at range with various guns, pick locks and do other subtle handiwork. He fights for justice, sure, but he also waxes poetic about Eudora Welty (“I love short stories, they get straight to the point”), dishes out an encyclopedia’s worth of fun facts and tactical tricks, tells slippery lies to get information wherever he is. His mom is French. He traveled around the world as an Army brat. This has made him cultured, worldly. You might think this drifter with a savant-like ability to do anything could be a bit maladroit, but don’t worry, folks: he fucks. Lord does he fuck.
Is this character, a perfect man who does anything and kills evil dudes at will, likable? Well, I don’t know. When you watch a video of a lion taking down an antelope, do you find the lion likable? It’s not about liking him or relating to him as much as it is about the way the show sets the murderous energy of this dude loose on his prey, which is injustice. He is not the little guy, getting the crew together and overcoming adversity. He is an F5 tornado, tearing through the plot and anyone and anything it throws at him. The impressive thing about this show isn’t how it makes you feel for Reacher—scenes where they try are the worst thing in a given episode—it’s about seeing this ultimate stoic man plow or pry or think his way through any obstacle that gets set in his way.
The specifics of these obstacles are beside the point. There is a plot here, involving a corporation that exerts their will over a run-down town, fixing everything up quick and nice, paying off the whole police force (aside from two holdouts), the mayor, the prison, and all the town’s citizens so that they show due deference while they do dirty, nasty deeds in the dark and kill anyone who is set on digging them up. It’s bitterly ironic that this show about a company that makes big economic promises in order to leverage the suffering of post-industrial communities for nefarious gain was produced by Amazon. But, well, someone had to do it, I guess.
If the idea of a one-man bloodbath doing the dirty work of pure justice sounds cool to you, give Reacher a try. And even if it doesn’t, maybe take a second to flip it on and watch it present the wildest funhouse-mirror version of pure masculinity you can possibly imagine. It’s dumb, sure, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t overflowing with joie de vivre.