The opening minutes of the action-thriller "Jack Reacher" unfold with a display of gun violence that will be strikingly familiar to anyone who has been horrified by headline news in recent weeks. A sniper is shown assembling his long-range assault rifle. He then leans over a balustrade and goes about systematically assassinating innocent victims, seemingly at random, as they walk along a Pittsburgh riverfront.
Tom Cruise breaks type to portray the movie's eponymous lead, a surly butt-kicker out to investigate the shooting rampage. Question is, just days after the tragically real school shooting in Newtown, Conn., are moviegoers primed to pay to see more innocent people massacred on-screen?
The predicament represents a moment of truth for Cruise. With Paramount Pictures set to release "Reacher" on Friday, the man who not long ago was the world's most bankable movie star is now Hollywood's holiday underdog. Prerelease surveys suggest "Reacher" will open to about $15 million, an unimpressive start for a picture that cost $60 million to make.
PHOTOS: How the holiday films are tracking
If word of mouth from early attendees is good, however, "Jack Reacher," like many pictures that open just before Christmas, could enjoy a big box office run over the holidays. But there is a lot to overcome.
Not only must Cruise ask audiences to set aside his tabloid persona as a participant in the most high-profile celebrity divorce of recent years, the eternally boyish 5-foot-7 star must sell fans of British author Lee Child's "Jack Reacher" series on his portrayal of a 6-foot-5 blond-haired ex-soldier who weighs more than 220 pounds.
Prerelease buzz on social media has been so negative that in October research firm Fizziology reported it was the worst it had ever seen surrounding a particular actor in an upcoming picture.
"Jack Reacher is a sledge hammer, Tom Cruise is [an] underwear dancing sissy," posted a commenter identifying himself as Little Jonny on the website of the British film magazine Empire.
Addressing those concerns and refocusing attention on the movie is perhaps Cruise's most important task as he arrives in the U.S. this week to do publicity for the film after attending premieres for it overseas. The movie's premiere in Pittsburgh was delayed from Saturday to Wednesday after last week's elementary school massacre in Connecticut. And a celebrity-packed special screening of the film at New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center on Monday that Cruise was scheduled to attend was postponed.
Cruise's star has already been tarnished at the box office this year with the surprise failure of the musical "Rock of Ages." He helped revive the "Mission: Impossible" franchise last December but fizzled in 2010's action-comedy "Knight and Day."
PHOTOS: Celebrity portraits by The Times
And then there's the film's competition at the multiplex. On Christmas, "Reacher" will have to face-off against Quentin Tarantino's slave revenge epic "Django Unchained" and the adaptation of Broadway musical "Les Misérables," two of 2012's most highly anticipated films.
Last week, "Reacher" producer Don Granger admitted some apprehension but pointed out that the gritty potboiler could serve as counterprogramming to awards-bait movies.
"Of course it keeps you up at night, those movies have tremendous presold awareness," he said. "But once Paramount saw our movie, they felt we could be the good-time PG-13 action thriller for the holiday season."
There's also reason to believe "Jack Reacher" could succeed overseas. With the knowledge that "Knight & Day" and "Mission" each grossed more than three times as much internationally as domestically, Paramount has had Cruise expend most of his promotional energy for "Reacher" in Asia and Europe.
"The U.S. market today is much less star-driven, but the international marketplace still is," said Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore. "Our expectation that it will do more outside of the U.S. is a big reason to put Tom Cruise in a movie like this."
A big gap
Cruise has owned the rights since 2005 to adapt "One Shot" — the ninth book in British author Lee Child's bestselling Jack Reacher series — but the filmmakers insist Cruise's casting was not Hollywood's version of Dick Cheney picking himself to be George W. Bush's presidential running mate after he ran the then-candidate's search committee.
PHOTOS: Hollywood back lot moments
In fact, the star was initially uncertain about claiming the part for himself due to the large gap between Reacher and Cruise's personas. Child describes Reacher as "built like the side of a house ... his hands, giant battered mitts that bunched into fists the size of footballs."