Monday, January 20, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Dir. Kenneth Branagh

3 out of 5

Sitting through Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit reminded me of a question that gnaws at me anytime I watch a Hollywood espionage thriller: What's so alluring about creating an American version of James Bond?  The series of movies based on late novelist Tom Clancy's war hero-turned-intelligence analyst arguably represents the most consistent attempt at 'Americanizing' the Bond archetype and turning it into a modest cinematic institution, predating both Mission: Impossible and the Bourne cycle.  Shadow Recruit is the fifth film to feature the character of Jack Ryan, with Chris Pine the fourth actor to tackle the role since 1990's The Hunt for Red October.  And while it's a little unfair to lump Ryan in with a character whose origins lie in a completely different era of politics and filmmaking, the gap between the two is more indicative of a obvious difference in creative agendas that still tends to be overlooked - namely, the Ryan films are committed to action and intrigue, not iconography.

That's a perfectly noble goal, and one that Shadow Recruit achieves at times with great skill.  It's technically a reboot, tracking Ryan's career progression from the battlefields of Afghanistan, where he suffers a near-fatal back injury, to his civilian job as a compliance officer for a major Wall Street firm, which is actually a CIA listening post designed to keep tabs on suspicious financial activity.  For a while, the film is quite the low-key portrait of what it's like to be a rookie spy.  Ryan leans on the advice of his mentor (Kevin Costner)  and struggles to keep the true nature of his work secret from Cathy (Keira Knightley), the long-term girlfriend Ryan met while rehabbing his spinal injury.  She's reluctant to marry him, not fully understanding the true nature of Ryan's evasiveness until he's called to Moscow to investigate the shady dealings of wealthy Russian oligarch Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, who also directed).

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit could very well be the first post-post-9/11 spy movie.  Cherevin's nefarious plot revolves around a financial calamity as catastrophic as the concomitant terrorist attack planned by his sleeper agents inside the United States.  The movie's strongest setpiece is not the breathless pursuit of a bomber through the streets of New York City (which feels rather perfunctory), but an extended piece of nitty-gritty spycraft that involves Carol distracting Cherevin during dinner while Ryan infiltrates Cherevin's office to gather incriminating information.  Furthermore, Cherevin is no reclusive ideologue.  He's a lord of the realm who also happens to be a white-collar crook hiding in plain sight, and a character made more compelling by Branagh's subtle notes of pain in a man who's dedicated his entire life to settling old grudges.  He reminds Ryan that he fought in Afghanistan too, and keeps part of the American-supplied grenade that wounded him as a war trophy.

Alas, the film's breakneck pacing leaves the rest of the cast gasping for air when it comes to providing the type of shading that Branagh gives to Cherevin.  Shadow Recruit constantly charges into the next life-or-death situation, a strategy that prevents the movie from getting to flabby but doesn't help with character consistency.  Ryan is far more interesting when allowed to display vulnerability and fear, traits that are eventually thrown out the window in favor of making him another super-genius who knows exactly what to do and say to further the plot - a turn partly attributable to Pine, whose coolness and unflappability suits Star Trek's Captain Kirk much better than a greenhorn spy.  By transforming Jack Ryan into yet another do-anything superhero, Shadow Recruit joins a long line of films in succumbing to the Bond-ification of a promising character.  Sacrificing innovation for imitation, it's a middling attempt at a franchise relaunch that's far more successful in its more modest secondary aim: providing a diverting cloak-and-dagger caper.

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