The hunt for a new action hero: “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”

January 19, 2014


After more than a decade hiatus, CIA analyst Jack Ryan–Tom Clancy’s signature creation—is back on the screen. First embodied by Alec Baldwin nearly 25 years ago in a career-making (and, perversely enough, career-derailing) performance in The Hunt for Red October, the role then went to the more appropriate, but less interesting Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. An attempt to reboot the character was made in 2002 when Ben Affleck stepped into the role in The Sum of All Fears, and that went about as well as everything else Affleck did in the 2000s. Now, Hollywood as decided to reboot the reboot with Chris Pine stepping in to retcon the character yet again in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. This time, however, the results are far more positive.

The movie begins by revising Ryan’s backstory—keeping the helicopter crash which nearly crippled him—but updating it by making his military service and subsequent injury occur as a result of his decision to drop out of the London School of Economics as a reaction to the attacks of September 11th. While struggling to regain his ability to walk at Walter Reed Hospital, Jack falls in love with Cathy (Keira Knightly), his pretty physical therapist. He’s also recruited into the CIA by an agent named Harper (Kevin Costner, whose presence is a bit of an irony as he passed on the Jack Ryan role in Red October).

"I made 'Dances With Wolves' instead. Turned out to be a good move."

I made ‘Dances With Wolves’ instead. Turned out to be a good move.”

That is all set up in an economical pre-credits sequence before we fast-forward to present day, when Jack is undercover at a Wall Street investment firm, keeping tabs on global finances and living with Cathy. When a series of strange transactions made by a Russian firm partnered with his catches Jack’s attention, the CIA sends him to Moscow to meet with the firm’s president, Viktor Cherevin (a reptilian Kenneth Branaugh, who also directed).

In short order Jack discovers a plot by Cheverin to deflate US currency in the wake of a terrorist attack he is planning, and subsequently collapse the economies of the US and China in one fell swoop. Caught up in this whirlwind of plots, Ryan is activated as a field operative and must thwart Cheverin’s plan.

"Yeah, directing a new film...yeah better than 'Thor.' No stupid hats."

“Yeah, directing a new film…yeah better than ‘Thor.’ No stupid hats.”

Complicating factors is the fact that Cathy has grown suspicious of Jack’s evasions and has decided to surprise him in Moscow. With no other choice, Jack and Harper clue her into the truth of the matter and utilize her as an asset to help take on Cheverin.

If all this seems a bit thin, well it is. The surprising thing about Jack Ryan is that despite its gorgeous location shoots and elaborate character-building, it actually tells a fairly modest story by the standards set by its predecessors. Its story doesn’t even stack up against the dodgier Mission: Impossible movies, having only three somewhat tame action sequences. That having been said, the movie works as a breathless thriller, largely due to its compact plot and ambitions.



In large part, this is due to timing. History was the major blow to Affleck’s outing, as the movie dealt with neo-Nazi terrorists, who had been changed from the source materials Arabs. This, coming less than a year after 9/11 marked the Hollywood thriller factory as hopelessly floundering to tell modern-day political thrillers in a time when the world had profoundly changed.  Even the inclusion of a dirty bomb (something we were really scared of in 2002), couldn’t make the movie seem prescient.

In 2014 it would be dangerous to make a CIA thriller too complicated, lest the movie wade into dangerous waters. Jack Ryan—and indeed Clancy’s whole industry—is one of unambiguous American righteousness. This was easier to get away with in the ‘80s and ‘90s when the CIA was a little-seen entity for most Americans. Today, well, that’s a whole different kettle of fish. Jack Ryan lands a glancing recognition of the CIA’s controversial past decade when, upon being offered the CIA gig, Ryan tells Harper that they don’t have the best of reputations, what with the renditions and waterboarding and all. “Not my department,” Harper says, and you’re half-expecting him to continue, “They’re, like, on a whole different floor. I don’t go there.” And that is that.

"Plus the CIA has a great cafeteria. No, you gotta see it..."

“Plus the CIA has a great cafeteria. No, you gotta see it…”

But Ryan works because of Ryan—that is, Chris Pine. Clancy’s Jack Ryan was always a bit of a cipher, a blandly generic Boy Scout whose personality boiled down to, “good analyst, good father, loving husband, becomes President.” Baldwin’s portrayal infused him with some life, but Ford’s stolid screen presence simply washed the character out. Pine, having honed his action hero bona fides with the Star Trek movies, slips easily into role, making his Jack Ryan a man of action, not ideology.

He can karate-run with the best of them...

He can karate-run with the best of them…

Pine is probably too pretty an actor to get the credit that he’s due, but he really does a very good job in the role. Along with the action work, he’s credible in his romantic scenes with Knightly—particularly their early courtship when he’s flirtatious without being smug—and does a good job of selling his post-killing freak-out almost as well as Daniel Craig did in Casino Royale.

One significant improvement this film makes over its predecessors is the inclusion of Ryan’s wife in the action. Granted, no one wants to see Anne Archer running around with an Uzi, but the previous movies could have done something more with her than simply making her a token presence existing to be put in jeopardy, or simply to be a symbol of Jack’s middle-class white perfection.  Knightley’s Cathy is more believably smart and canny than any female character in quite a while.

It’s an unusual time for a new Tom Clancy property, and if you read my “No American 007” post you understand why (if you didn’t read, I understand…we’re cool), so it’s probably to be expected that the movie plays like a fairly generic thriller, playing upon our fears of economic crisis rather than of terror. It’s an ideological cheat, but what the hell. That’s what Hollywood does.

One comment

  1. Good review. Better than a lot of the crap that usually comes out in January, so for that, I definitely had to give this one some credit.

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