‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ – Advance Film Review

It was just announced yesterday that 20th Century Fox has staked out a release date for the third of their new Planet of the Apes movies.  The second film won’t be out for another seven months, but the next film will come to us in July of 2016.  This is where the film industry is at today.  The studios are doing everything they can to find a film franchise that they can milk for sequels until it’s time for the inevitable reboot.  Books are skimmed to find the new Hunger Games while board games (Battleship) and toy lines (The LEGO Movie) are in play to find a property that can sustain at least a trilogy of movies.  They are so terrified of (or have no access to) original story ideas that they’re now going into their back catalogs to regenerate obsolete series from the past.  Sony is bringing Robocop back to life in the next few weeks, and as dreadful as that thing looks, the studios feel it’s easier to sell the public a title they already know than try to sell them something original.

With all this in mind, Paramount has gone back into their archives to resurrect Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst Jack Ryan.  From the late '80s forward, Paramount produced four Jack Ryan movies with three different actors playing the role (Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and later Ben Affleck).  The original Ryan films were successes, and while Clancy has recently passed away, he’s left behind a number of novels that could be used as source material.  Jack Ryan is back on the job.

Of course, this being Hollywood in 2014, just continuing on with Ryan films with a new actor (or Affleck himself) in the role is a no go, this new movie has to be a prequel.  It’s clear they had the huge success of the James Bond reboot Casino Royale in mind when they conceived of this new Ryan project, a comparison that won’t do their new film any real favors.  Casino Royale is a vastly superior movie.

Paramount has tapped Chris Pine, their rebooted Captain Kirk, to be the new Ryan.  After the 9/11 attacks, grad student Jack Ryan enlists in the marines.  After being severely injured in Afghanistan, Ryan is recruited by a CIA operative named Thomas Harper, who’s played by Kevin Costner.  I’ve been a big fan of Costner over the years, and I’m enjoying this career rebirth he’s been having as of late.  It’s fun here to see him take on the elder mentor role, and a park bench conversation between Harper and Ryan is a nifty juxtaposition of Costner with the role Donald Southerland played in JFK 20 years ago.

A PhD in economics, Ryan is initially hired to be a covert agent in a Wall Street bank, searching to find chicanery in the financial sector.  Ryan discovers some hidden accounts for a Russian namedViktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, also the film’s director) and is soon being sent to Russia to investigate.  Almost immediately, Ryan is nearly killed by his limo driver (The porcelain-crunching fight sequence plays out in a bathroom, almost exactly like the opening sequence in Casino Royale in which Bond also made his first kill.) and is forced into the role of active agent.  Complicating matters is the surprise visit from Ryan’s girlfriend (Keira Knightly) who fears her man is having an affair.  What with all the secrecy, what’s a girl to believe?  It turns out Cherevin is plotting a one-two punch of a terrorist attack on Wall Street and a stock sell off that will cripple the US economy in a way Jordan Belfort could only imagine.

It’s not that this new Ryan picture is bad (It’s a perfectly workmanlike spy movie.), it’s that he’s a character from the bygone Cold War era.  The whole project seems to be at a loss on how to bring him into the modern world, a problem the recent Bond movies have done really well.  There’s a scene in which Ryan must break into an office and quickly download incriminating computer files before being discovered, and as this scene played out I kept thinking about how many other times I’ve seen the exact same thing in other movies. There’s also a car chase through the streets of Moscow where a flying-blind Ryan is told where to turn by a voice in his earpiece that’s watching a GPS grid.  I’ve seen that before, too.  

I had the opportunity a couple of years ago to see Pine in an LA theater production of Martin McDonough’s play The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and Pine was really terrific in it.  I think he’s got a lot to offer as a film actor, and I’d love to see him get the chance to be more than just a handsome leading man.   At least in Star Trek he gets to have some fun playing around with Kirk’s ego.

Watching this was like watching a perfectly competent cover band play a greatest hits set.  I don’t know that I expected Jack Ryan to reinvent the spy movie wheel, but would it hurt them to give the wheel a fresh coat of paint?   I was reminded of the first Mission: Impossible movie where Cruise has to break into an office and steal computer files, but he does it suspended from the ceiling.  It’s the same thing we’ve seen a hundred times before, but in that film their inventive approach created a bravura and now famous (and still frequently parodied) sequence.   It’s interesting, because that spy movie franchise is also produced in-house at Paramount.  You’d think these guys might compare notes at some point.

Jack Ryan is solid but uninspired, meat-and-potatoes film craft, and I really hope they bring some imagination to its inevitable sequel.

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