Movie Talk

Cinema’s enfant terrible Werner Herzog brings villainy to ‘Jack Reacher’

Movie Talk

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Photo: Everett Collection

Here's another reason to not let "Jack Reacher" get buried under all the Oscar hopefuls this holiday season and get thee to a theater near you to check it out: Werner Herzog plays the bad guy.

Kudos to director Christopher McQuarrie for that totally unexpected though more than welcome flourish of casting genius. Herzog rarely steps in front of the camera (as someone other than himself -- or at least a funhouse mirror version of himself), and one can only imagine what kind of eccentric energy he brings to the new Tom Cruise thriller about a self-styled sleuth/vigilante who's called in to investigate a sniper shooting, which leads to a run-in with a Russian killer known only as "the Zec" (Herzog).

"Jack Reacher" marks Herzog's first on-screen acting gig in several years, as he's recently been doing voice roles for animated series such as "Metalocalypse," "The Boondocks" and "The Simpsons" (of course he has!). But it's not as an actor in which the German filmmaker makes his biggest -- and, more often than not, most bizarre -- impressions.

Herzog, born on September 4, 1942, emerged as a maverick of sorts early on in his youth, refusing at the age of 12 to sing a song in front of his class (an act of defiance for which he was almost expelled); he subsequently didn't listen to any music, sing any songs or study any instruments until the age of 18 (why? Because). He embraced his calling as a filmmaker at the age of 14 after he stole a 35mm camera from the Munich Film School, an act he doesn't consider theft but simply that "it was just a necessity."

Herzog went on to make bold, operatic and seemingly technically impossible narrative and nonfiction films, including "Aquirre, the Wrath of God" (1972) an art film disguised as an epic action adventure in which Lope de Aquirre leads a group of conquistadores down the Amazon River in search of the legendary El Dorado. It was the first of what would be five collaborations between Herzog and his volatile muse, Klaus Kinski; their strange and often dangerous personal and working relationship (which involved them trying to murder each other at least once) was documented in Herzog's 1999 documentary, "My Best Fiend."

Herzog's knack for epic outlandishness -- such as actually pulling a steamship over a mountain in "Fitzcarraldo" (1982) -- wasn't limited to his movie sets. He genuinely seems to be living some sort of charmed life, though it's certainly the strangest and most unpredictable kind of charm possible. For example, while location scouting for "Aguirre" in Peru, he narrowly avoided taking LANSA Flight 508, which later disintegrated after being struck by lightning; there was one survivor, Juliane Kopecke, who later became the subject of Herzog's 2000 documentary, "Wings of Hope."

Later, in January 2006, Herzog assisted Joaquin Phoenix out of his overturned car on a road above Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard; a few months later, an unidentified person shot Herzog with an air rifle while he was being interviewed by the BBC -- though Herzog continued the interview as if nothing happened, showing the mild wound for the camera and claiming "It is not a significant bullet."

Who knows what kind of weird vibes Herzog brought to "Jack Reacher." You never quite know what's going to happen when the man who Roger Ebert claims "has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons or uninteresting" is involved -- even when he's just playing the bad guy.

See the trailer for 'Jack Reacher':

'Jack Reacher' Theatrical Trailer

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