Monday, January 27, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

My expectations for the new Jack Ryan movie were really stinking low. I've enjoyed the couple of Tom Clancy novels I've read (Clear and Present Danger and Without Remorse), but I wouldn't exactly call myself a fan of the books. I loved the first three movies based on them though. Hunt for Red October is a great thriller and Alec Baldwin's Jack Ryan is a different kind of hero: an analyst who prefers to think his way out of problems rather than use violence. Hiring middle-aged Harrison Ford for Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger made a lot of sense then, letting the character continue to be an intellectual instead of an action star.

I never saw Sum of All Fears, partly because I'm not super fond of Ben Affleck as an actor, but also because I hated the concept of de-aging Jack Ryan. I was afraid that he'd become just another actiony superspy. I still have no idea if that was true for Sum of All Fears, though no one's ever recommended it to me as a must-watch, but it was also my fear for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. It felt like such a cynical gimmick for Paramount to reboot the series, like they wanted their own Bond or Bourne series and this was the way they were going to get it. If it hadn't been for the cast, I wouldn't have even bothered with it.

I can take or leave Chris Pine, but Keira Knightley and Kenneth Branagh are people I love. I'll watch pretty much anything with either of them in it. I'm also interested in Kevin Costner at this stage of his career. I was hot and cold on him in early days (mostly cold except for The Untouchables and maybe Bull Durham), but in spite of the huge problems I had with the way Pa Kent was written in Man of Steel, there were no issues with the way Costner played him. I was looking forward to seeing him mentor Pine in Jack Ryan.

To my pleased surprise, Pine's Jack Ryan isn't a natural action hero. There are a couple of stunts that nudge him into that territory (and I assume that if there are sequels, there will be even more of that), but for the most part he's Alec Baldwin's analyst character who gets thrust into events that he's not ready for. Costner does a nice job coaching him through the roughest spots and giving orders to the team of agents who support Ryan's activities. I liked their relationship a lot.

Knightley also does a great job as Ryan's girlfriend who doesn't know what his real job is and has to deal with finding out. There's some nice stuff for her to work with as she struggles with trusting Ryan even though he's been doing some really suspicious stuff. I've seen that scenario play out in a bunch of other spy films, but Knightley made me feel it in a way I usually don't, and the script gives her lots to do even after she's gone through that process. She's not just a complication in the hero's life; she's a real character with her own thoughts and ideas and she contributes to solving the mystery.

If you've seen the trailer for Jack Ryan, that last paragraph may feel like a spoiler, but it's not. The marketing makes it seem like maybe someone close to Ryan (ie Knightley or Costner) will betray him, but there's never a hint of that in the film. There's one main villain (Branagh) and the mystery that Ryan and Company are trying to solve doesn't depend on misdirection to keep the viewer's attention. We know who the bad guy is right away, but we don't know exactly what he's up to or how he plans to pull it off.

That said, the plot's pretty straightforward and once Ryan's figured it out, the movie just has to go through the motions of resolving it. That makes the movie pretty mediocre in terms of plot and there's not a lot in it that I hadn't seen before in other films. What makes it good for me are the performances. Branagh's not doing anything interesting with his generic Russian bad guy and Pine is Pine, but Knightley and Costner make the movie for me. Rather than seeing a sequel to Shadow Recruit, I'd much prefer a spinoff where Costner trains Knightley to be a secret agent.


Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

Franchises are big business and its no surprise Paramount would want to reboot Jack Ryan to be an ongoing action series with a Casino Royale style reboot origin story.

I don't have much attachment to the Jack Ryan character. But I was concerned when I saw listed on IMDB as simply "Jack Ryan" for the longest time and thought that was the title they were going to keep. As far as making a movie series goes, I think making the title of the film the same as your lead character is a bad idea. The name is short and generic, it doesn't tell you anything about the plot, and it messes with what you can call the sequels.

Take for instance Paramount other action franchise gamble "Jack Reacher" with Tom Cruise. What are they going to call that sequel, Jack Reacher 2: Reach Harder?

Michael May said...

Yeah. It was the same problem with the title of John Carter. Boring!


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