Note to Paramount: A successful Jack Ryan adventure isn’t one that showcases stunts bigger than Chris Pine’s eyebrows. Sure, the car crashes and rooftop jumps offer good support, but without umpteen moments that require the audience to use their brains, twists that make the Grimsel Pass in Switzerland seem straight by comparison, and a complex array of characters – aside from the C.I.A hotshot lead – that spur captivation and investment, you might as well be making.. a “Bourne” movie starring Jeremy Renner. And if the memo had arrived sooner, I guess it would’ve saved the dozen or so writers that have worked on “Jack Ryan : Shadow Recruit” (terrible title!) over the years the castigation and distress of being unable to crack the libretto – so, I’m sorry, guess the email got caught up somewhere between Chris Pine’s left and right eyebrow.
Based on the best-selling, and rather brilliant books by Tom Clancy (who sadly passed away last year), the Jack Ryan films – which kicked off in 1990 with John McTiernan’s tense, terrific submarine thriller “Hunt for Red October”, starring Alec Baldwin in the role of Ryan – have always maintained a fairly good balance of the smart and the silly. Realizing there’d be at least two large segments seeing “Red October”, “Patriot Games”, “Clear and Present Danger” and “Sum of All Fears”, each film’s screenwriter and director, respectively, ostensibly took extreme care in setting up a smart, brain-needing scenario that featured a rather-amazing everyman (played, in sequence, by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck, respectively; yep, it’s a part that’s had more face lifts than a Hollywood starlet) that digs himself into a sweaty-inducing corner. Clancy himself was never that pleased – he was rather hard to please; at the same time, fair enough, these stories were his children – with the adaptations, claiming they were dumbed-down and miscast (he especially disliked Harrison Ford being cast as Ryan), but the critics, cinemagoers and Clancy-book-fans weren’t complaining.
While the earlier movies were Academy Awards meets MTV Movie Awards, “Shadow Recruit” is pure MTV. The fact that the movie is based on an original script, and not one of Clancy’s novels (they’ve many that haven’t been adapted for the screen that they could’ve chosen from), straightway tells you Paramount’s in this for the fame, not acclaim (watch out Eminem! I rhyme!). With umpteen other movie franchises having been successfully rebooted in recent years – with everyone from James Bond to Batman going back to page one – the studio obviously rummaged through the archives to see what established movie heroes that had on their books still, and discovered that – although they didn’t own the rights to any more of Clancy’s screenplays – the character of Jack Ryan was theirs for the toying and tinkering.
For the better part of a decade, Paramount then attempted to get Ryan back on the screen. While assigning a SAG screening’s worth of writers and directors to retool a spec (“Dubai” by Adam Cozard) into a Ryan movie, the studio saved up their pennies in a jar – accumulating enough to afford a hot young, teen-friendly movie star (in “Star Trek” heartthrob Chris Pine) and some stunt-men to pull off some cool money shots for the trailer.
And it’s that presumed stratagem – making a movie for those that don’t give a damn about Jack Ryan movies or the Tom Clancy books they’re based upon – that derails “Jack Ryan” from being of the same successful ilk as other reboots, be it a “Batman Begins” or “Casino Royale” – two films that were determined to not only please those familiar and non-familiar with the characters in them, but be damn good movies in their own right. While the previous films made you think, even included surprises, “Shadow Recruit” seems determined to spoon-feed its audience – which, they obviously hope, is mostly made-up of the same young guys and girls that aid to see that most recent, shitty “Bourne” film – yes, without Matt Damon’s ‘Bourne’ in it – a couple of years ago. In the same fashion that Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes remakes classic horror movies for inebriated teenage audiences that have no investment in… well, what’s come before…. The new “Ryan” is Melrose’s gift to gum-chewing, boy-cooin’ little Susie.
But let’s look at the movie on its own, without the Louis Vuitton baggage it comes with, and rate it on its own stitching.
Eye grubs and an underestimation of the audience’s intelligence aside, writers Adam Cozard and David Koepp have crafted an entertaining movie – albeit one that might’ve been better titled ‘untitled Kenneth Branagh action thriller’ or ‘Jim Kirk : The Spy Who Shagged Keira.. .then saved Manhattan”. From the fun, “24”-esque ‘stop the terrorist attack’ plot to the film’s impressively choreographed stunt sequences, not to mention some damn fine actors (even if some of them are severely underutilised and don’t have much to work with), “Jack Ryan : Shadow Recruit” is an enjoyable and likeable jaunt.
Set in modern times (an excuse for the scribes to include cell phones and ‘Reddit’ as some of Ryan’s newer weaponry), the film tells of Ryan’s younger years – before he jumped onto submarines, and before he was sworn in as President (Okay, we didn’t get that far in the films, but in the books, Ryan ultimately inherits the hottest seat in America) – as an analyst that’s hired by the central intelligence agency (or rather, Kevin Costner) to spy into shady accounts on Wall Street. When he uncovers a Russian terrorist plot to crash the U.S Economy with a terrorist attack, it’s off to Moscow to do a face-to-face with the dangerous and determined billionaire rogue (Branagh). Not far behind, Costner’s agent William Harper, and Ryan’s devoted girlfriend Cathy (Keira Knightley) – who, because she’s been kept in the dark about his job and suspects her beau is cheating on her hops a plane to ‘surprise’ him.
Chris Pine is an engaging young actor, and he’s convincing-enough as the smart-as-a-whip analyst that has the combat skills of Braddock. Reminiscent of a young(er) Matt Damon or Ben Affleck (who, funnily enough, played the role of Ryan in 2002’s “Sum Of All Fears” – itself somewhat of a reboot of the series; it, though, was based on one of Clancy’s novels), he has the right mix of cocky charm and physicality, making for an easy-to-root-for hero.
Kevin Costner and Kenneth Branagh, playing mentor and villain, respectively, bring gravitas to their showy secondary roles, with the latter – and surprisingly enough, considering he also directed the film – working magic with some of his wonky lines. Costner, though always a welcome screen presence, seems to be struggling to keep himself awake with all the exposition he has to deliver here (Fun Fact : 25 years ago, Costner was offered the role of Ryan in “Red October”; he passed, because he was busy with “Dances with Wolves”). But again, he adds class to the production, the same way his ‘matinee idol vet’ colleagues Harrison Ford and Jeff Bridges do when they’re in contemporary cotton candy; Costner is still a cool cat.
Keira Knightley – playing a part previously played by Gates McFadden, Anne Archer and Bridget Moynahan, respectively – gets by on her good-looks. Overused – likely because the studio wants to pull in the ladies with the promise of a ‘romantic’ element to the film – but serving no real purpose (except, as I said, to kiss Chris Pine a few times over – perfect for the TV spots), she’s essentially the ‘hot’ prop of the thing. Let’s not even get into the chemistry she doesn’t have with Pine (Scott Baio in “Zapped” knew more about chemistry than these two).
There are essentially only four characters in the film – which is where “Shadow Recruit” differs, once again, from the previous Ryan films. The previous films encompassed an interesting rogue’s gallery of supporting characters (remember all the great characters and actors surrounding Baldwin and Ryan in “Red October”? – Sam Neill, Jeffrey Jones, Tim Curry, James Earl Jones, Richard Jordan, Fred Dalton Thompson… the list goes on); all well-detailed, all well-canvased. There was the potential to bump up some of the little roles in this one too, but instead, the script seems determined to keep proceedings an out-and-out four-hander.
The movie is never dull, it’s a fun piece of popcorn entertainment, and it’s also been nicely shot (the Russian sequences filmed with finesse by Haris Zambarloukos), but when the inevitable Jack Ryan Blu-ray set is re-issued to include “Shadow Recruit”, the flick is going to look as out of place as a “Never Say Never Again” crew-jacket at a Broccoli birthday gathering.