Sunday, January 19, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit / **½ (PG-13)

Jack Ryan: Chris Pine
Cathy Muller: Keira Knightley
Thomas Harper: Kevin Costner
Viktor Cherevin: Kenneth Branagh

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Adam Cozad and David Koepp. Based on characters created by Tom Clancy. Running time: 105 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of violence and intense action, and brief strong language).

If the Jack Ryan franchise gets rebooted much more, we’re all going to find out what really happened on his first grade playground. As it is, the producers and writers of the new “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” clearly realize that the biggest threat to the United States is no longer a nuclear bomb, but a financial one. In updating the series for a new generation we get a new Ryan with a very different world of problems to face. While the fifth installment in the franchise—the first in twelve years—tries to stay true to the notion of Ryan as a hero made more out of brains than brawn, the new ideal of the Dumbing Down of Hollywood can’t help but rear its ugly head with unnecessary action peppered throughout a plot more clever than its execution.

This time we go back even further in Ryan’s career than any previous Ryan picture. In fact it starts before his career began, when he’s still studying finance at Oxford. It’s an interesting choice, that certainly makes sense for this film’s plot, to make Ryan an expert in numbers rather than an historian; but I fear it will limit the credibility of his expertise in future installments. The date is September 9th, 2011. It’s the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center that inspires Ryan’s military service where he continues the Ryan tradition of voicing his opinions without anyone listening. Then he’s critically injured during a helicopter crash. During his rehabilitation Thomas Harper recruits him as an analyst for a CIA anti-terrorist unit.

Ten year’s later, he’s working deep cover in Wall Street looking for money patterns that might suggest terrorist funding when he stumbles upon a Russian plot to sway the balance of world power back in their favor with a potential massive trashing of the value of the U.S. dollar on the international trade market. Of course, Harper sends Ryan to Moscow to investigate even though he’s “an analyst, not a field agent,” a classic line of Ryan’s that he utters here one too many times. He doth protest too much.

Meanwhile, in Ryan’s personal life, he’s begin to have trouble justifying the action of his work with his girlfriend, Cathy, the intern who helped him through his rehabilitation, later becoming an eye specialist. He pushes for marriage, while she suspects an affair. She crashes his mission in Russia, learns his secret, and becomes a key element in a plan to steal hidden financial files from Viktor Cherevin, a Russian investor whom Ryan suspects may be planning the attack on the U.S. dollar.

Chris Pine becomes the fourth Jack Ryan in five movies and picks up his second major franchise reboot assignment after revitalizing the role of Captain Kirk for “Star Trek”. Pine isn’t as natural a choice for Ryan as the previous actors to play the character. He looks far too comfortable executing the action sequences. Keira Knightley seems another unlikely choice for previously fairly clinical character of Cathy, but she’s effective in her scenes with Cherevin. 

For the veterans, director Kenneth Branagh went with the typically solid Kevin Costner as Harper, a good choice for a company man you aren’t quite sure you can trust. The director cast himself as the Russian Cherevin. As always Branagh handles the acting material with all the weight and power it deserves. As a director, I wonder if he was the right choice, however. Although the success of his “Thor” threw him into the action genre, his strength lies more in the dialogue driven traditions of Shakespeare. The action sequences have too much of the quick cutting editing habits of modern Hollywood rather than the more measured nature of classic spy thrillers where space and quite are used as effective builders of suspense.

In fact, there is far too much action to be found in “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”. So much is always made about the fact that Ryan is not a field agent that should be reflected more in the content of his effectiveness in the field. Previous installments in this series have trusted the labyrinthine plot details to uphold the film’s suspense. This movies plot is only presented in a confusing way, rather than actually involving surprising twists and turns.

Too often the plot is used to serve the action, rather than the other way around. Consider the sequence in Moscow when Ryan is in Cherevin’s office stealing the files. Cathy is stalling at dinner with Cherevin, so even if Ryan escapes he has to save her once Cherevin is aware that he’s been duped. He does intercept her and escapes. Then Cherevin shows up at their safe house and kidnaps Cathy so Ryan can pursue them via car through the streets of Moscow. When he finally catches up, he leaves Cherevin and takes Cathy. Cherevin says it doesn’t matter. Then why’d he take her? Why did he bother to track down their safe house anyway? Nothing in this sequence serves to further the plot. It’s all just an excuse for more action.

In terms of action fare, you could do worse than “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”. However, as part of an already existing cinematic legacy, this new Jack Ryan adventure loses sight of the appeal of the series as it runs its course. It starts out promising, but devolves into an action vehicle that is all too familiar in its execution. The movie itself professes that Ryan is more useful as an intellectual weapon than a physical one, and then it demines to prove itself wrong.

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