Saturday, January 18, 2014

Spy Spy Again: JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT


With justified worries over an encroaching surveillance state that has overreaching capabilities to snoop on anyone with technology of any kind, now is a fairly awkward time to mount a slick Hollywood thriller about heroes in the United States intelligence community. In Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit a critical third act sequence finds characters frantically searching through data, cross-referencing telephone calls, and pulling up vast amounts of info on suspects with just a few key strokes. That they’re doing all this with a ticking time bomb of an imminent terrorist plot on American soil is the exact same fantasy that the intelligence agencies use when trying desperately to justify their sweeping ability to keep tabs on everyone at all times. And yet, as a piece of Hollywood filmmaking, that fantasy goes down well enough in this case, especially with a script by Adam Cozad and David Koepp that’s aware of its pulpy fiction and seems somewhat aware of the real moral ambiguities. The thrust of the film is a freshly rebooted origin story for Jack Ryan, the C.I.A. analyst and reluctant field operative from Tom Clancy’s military industrial airport novels, and so the final shot which, unconsciously or not, echoes the final shot of The Godfather, makes welcoming him into The Company seem rather ominous indeed.

This time around, Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is a bright graduate student who joins the Marines after September 11, 2001 and, after getting wounded in Afghanistan, is approached by a C.I.A. operative (Kevin Costner) with promise of a desk job sorting through financial records and analyzing the money flowing to and from terrorist organizations. Ten years later, Ryan finds some important information that sends him to Moscow where he’s quickly drawn into field work involving geopolitical intrigue and, yes, revelation of a terrorist plot about to blow up somewhere in the United States. Pine brings inquisitive puppy dog energy (imagine that) to his performance, playing at what another character labels as “Boy Scout on a field trip” behavior. He’s ready to serve his country, but caught off guard by a sudden and unexpected swerve out from behind his desk. Costner, with gravitas for days, is a sturdy guide, paternal and wise. He’s an actor who started out playing the young overeager hotshots that Pine gets cast as now, but has aged into a welcome sense of ease. He’s remarkably still, confident, and lends every line a sense of considered weight.

I liked the chemistry between these two, but Costner’s character is so intriguing that it’s a shame Pine’s Jack Ryan is a nonentity. He has a token love interest in Keira Knightley, who plays what is a typical girlfriend role in these kinds of movies, worrying he’s cheating on her with another woman when he’s only hiding his top-secret government employee status. Later, she’ll be in danger in order to fuel the plot. Again, how typical, even if the script gives their relationship a more mature glow than I expected. Even the villain, a tattooed Russian banker and sleeper cell coordinator, comes across as rather routine despite being played with chewy fun by Kenneth Branagh. (His character is described through his vices: vodka, vanity, and women. Say it with a Russian accent and the alliteration works better.) But who is Jack Ryan? With no defining characteristics beyond being a smart and patriotic white male government operative, and certainly with nothing more than vaguely identifiable personality traits, it’s often hard to see why the character is cause for such regular rebooting.

Each version seems to lose some of the energy and charisma, the character growing blander and less defined with each new script and performer. There was a young Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, a tense and tightly-wound character-driven thriller, then Harrison Ford took over a few years later, playing things older and slower in the sleepier Patriot Games and Clear and Pleasant Danger, before Ben Affleck gave it a go in 2002’s solid Sum of All Fears. Sturdy films all, they, Hunt aside, nonetheless carry about them a whiff of the generic. Who is this Jack Ryan? I certainly didn’t care by this point. If the would-be franchise hasn’t stuck yet, one would almost say it’s time to give up trying. And yet, it churns out such agreeably generic thrillers that I’d almost hate to see them go.

Shadow Recruit is so crisp and compact, likably human scale in its thriller sequences of people running, chasing, and sneaking. Branagh, who is also the director, doesn’t draw much on his Shakespearean chops, or even his work directing the half pseudo-Shakespearean Thor, but keeps the tension high enough. It’s all reasonably diverting and modestly plotted, a reminder of a time when a big studio movie didn’t need a fully CGI climax. With its small-scale stunt work and one big splashy effect saved for maximum impact, I’d call it a throwback if it weren’t so consumed with post-9/11 anxieties. I found it involving enough, though the only character I ever truly bought was Costner’s. It’s a fine example of brisk, anonymous, functional thriller craftsmanship, although it feels more like a promising restart than a fully satisfying thing on its own, like a pilot for a mildly intriguing TV show. Figuring out how to better make Jack Ryan a fully formed, or at least interesting or engaging, character would’ve been nice. So would a point of view on all the agency’s grey-area capabilities. But I have a feeling we’ll see this character again. Maybe by that time the rights’ holders will have it figured out.

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