Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
(SPOILERS) The mealy-mouthed title speaks volumes about the uncertainty with which Tom Clancy’s best-known character has been rebooted. Paramount has a franchise that has made a lot of money, based on a deeply conservative, bookish CIA analyst (well, he starts out that way). How do you reconfigure him for a 21st century world (even though he already has been, back in 2003) where everything he stands for is pretty much a dirty word? The answer, it seems, is to go for an all-purpose sub-James Bond plan to bring American to its knees, with Ryan as a fresh (-ish) recruit (you know, like Casino Royale!) and surprising handiness in a fight. Yes, Jack is still a smart guy (and also now, a bit, -alec), adept at, well, analysing, but to survive in the modern franchise sewer he needs to be more than that. He needs to kick arse. And wear a hoodie. This confusion, inability to coax a series into being what it’s supposed to be, might explain the sour response to its eventual arrival following a lengthy period in Development Hell. But it’s probably more to do with the “That’ll do” shrug that saw fit to agree upon every half-hearted element, from the miscast lead and director to the laughably desperate attempt to make the villain believable. Shadow Recruit may wish it were in Cold War heaven, but no one in the audience is buying it.
9/11 has proved itself a godsend to the hack writer in need of character motivation, particularly of the ex-military variety. It’s the new Vietnam in Hollywood terms, a shorthand that requires little reinforcement. No amount of bad press and political debate about the wrongs and wrongs of interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan can stymie the iconography of the heroic soldier emerging bruised but undaunted by these conflicts. Even when he goes on to work for a corrupt establishment in order to save the world from the boogeyman. In theory, the kind of myth-making Shadow Recruit subjects us to should come up smelling of roses in any era and under any circumstances. 9/11 inspires noble London School of Economics student Jack to sign up, during an opening section that would make Ron Kovic’s eyes water (clearly Ryan, for all his analytical skills, can’t spot when he’s being sold a dummy; he swallows his patriotic duty hook, line and sinker).
Eighteen months later he’s a serving lieutenant whose chopper gets hit… And good lord, if he isn’t rendered unable to walk (as rendered on screen, it looks like as if this happens as soon as he gets there, which might in itself be a bit of commentary, except I’m dubious this movie has an ounce of serious reflection in its 105 minute running time; additionally, this is how he is retired from the marines in the novels too, just in a different era). Fortunately, Keira Knightley is on hand to motivate his recuperation. He also has the added impetus of everyone’s favourite uncle Kevin Costner, dangling mysterious carrots before him. Costner’s Thomas Harper is one of those omni-present operatives, always on a mission but finding abundant time to hang out down the local rehabilitation centre studying his potential recruit’s progress.
It isn’t long before Ryan is up and running like the stalwart we, and Harper, know he is. This is knuckle dragging, clichéd movie-minimalism. The script, credited to David Koepp (whose name had been attached to a fair amount of dross over the last few years) and first timer Adam Cozad, is at a loss over how to arrange its topical elements into any form of coherence. It has to get on with the business of telling a traditional action/spy yarn when the form can’t cope the disparate parts. At least the picture doesn’t bother with the familiar approach of pretending to criticise a government institution while simultaneously fully endorsing it. Jack’s wholly on board when Harper offers him a job, his doubts limited to an aside; “You know, people don’t like you guys very much these days”. Ryan is set to work as a financial intelligence analyst with a Wall Street cover (“You’re the Compliance Officer. It’s your call” isn’t the kind of line that gets thrown at the protagonist of your average blockbuster, so there’s some small reward there). In which role he’s happily settled for 10 years, with an oblivious doctor girlfriend (Knightley’s Cathy), until he gets the call for field duty following a tip that something’s going down. No one else in the CIA understands what he’s gibbering about (this part might also be reasonably accurate) so he’s off to Moscow, in Koepp and Cozad’s nod to Police Academy 6.
The problem is, if you have a smart, thoughtful, acutely insightful lead character you’d better bring along some convincing revelations to justify those claims. The extent of Jack’s wisdom is the discovery of some hidden Russian accounts, necessitating a trip to the old Soviet capital to chat with Kenneth Branagh’s cirrhotic Victor Cherevin. He’s the story’s baddy, working for unnamed masters who may or may not be the big Russian cheeses themselves. This is standard issue covering of bases, of course, the kind of thing that required a “splinter faction” of the IRA in Patriot Games. That said, Shadow Recruit seems to have few qualms about pushing Russia as a force attempting to reassert itself globally at the US’s expense. It’s a nice safety zone, where the US would remain a thriving force if only those pesky Russkies don’t get in the way. Old standbys are trotted out; a key factor is the dominance a new Turkish gas pipeline will bring Moscow at the Americans’ expense.
I tend to wonder when a movie delivers exposition without a pause for breath; is it hoping that, if it speeds through, no one will notice it doesn’t make a lick of sense? It seems that these secreted funds are for the purpose of buying up US currency, the intention to collapse the dollar and crash the US economy by flooding the market in the wake of a terrorist incident. If the knowledge that the US is doing a damn good job of destroying its economy without any nudging didn’t make this enough of a stretch, we learn that a key part of this plot is an attack on US soil. Why do they need this attack to happen? It’s apparently crucial in ensuring economic collapse, breadlines and mass panic, with historical precursors validating Jack’s theory. If this doesn’t sound especially rigorous, it’s because the real reason for a great big bomb is simple. Without it the movie has no third act. And it proceeds to plumb the depths of Hollywood literalism with this device; to take out the financial system you plant a bomb under its physical embodiment – Wall Street. Did no one learn anything from The Dark Knight Returns, apart from how to steal a really rotten plot device? Don’t they realise all this money is, you know, electronic?
Someone pipes up that none of this makes much sense, as the Russians aren’t going to come out of this as winners. Ah, Ryan response sagely, but the Chinese stand to lose more. Okay, that about wraps that up then. After all, Ryan’s the clever one. There’s a wee joke about financial oversight (“You pay me to look” Ryan says to boss Colm Feore; “Not to look that hard” comes the reply), but unlike, say, a Le Carré, where the verisimilitude pulls you in, one gets the impression the writers thought they could wing it. Ryan goes for meetings in cinemas showing old black and white movies (Sorry, Wrong Number); you can tell Branagh (the guy who inflicted Dead Again on us) loves this, but it’s an ultra-cheesy in context. Placing Ryan on Wall Street during a period that spans the financial crisis suggests he isn’t terribly good at sniffing out big problems (of course, he’s only looking for ones relating to terrorists!) and the pronunciations about Russia (“They’re not a country, they’re a corporation!”) are so audacious you feel the writers must be more self-conscious than that. Don’t they really mean the US?
The mid-section of the movie, once Ryan arrives in Moscow, is by far the best. For all the sloppiness of the writing – even during this act – Branagh as director shows he can put a scene together competently or, at least, his second unit is solid. He’s calmed down considerably since his past indiscretions involving a motion-sickness-causing inability to keep the camera still (Dead Again and Frankenstein are particular culprits). As evidenced by Thor, he retains a penchant for Dutch angles but, that aside, he’s become fairly anonymous. It’s difficult to understand quite why Hollywood comes a-calling (well, you can see the kind of mindset that picked him for Thor; “Hey, isn’t Norse mythology kind of English? Let’s get that theatre guy”). Perhaps the suits thought he knew his spy yarns, except this doesn’t much resemble one. That Sir Ken’s next is Cinderella, his fourteenth feature, looks like a much better fit. Period trappings and an unhindered opportunity to position his camera at alarming angles. It will be his Prince and the Showgirl. Ken’s at least lively as Cherevin, but the character and execution scream Bond baddie.
So Ryan’s bruising altercation as soon as he arrives at his hotel finds the picture upping a gear. Yes, it’s overly referencing Bourne and Bond, but this is involving enough that you only later question what you saw; did Ryan keep in combat training over the decade since he last saw action (“You’re not just an analyst any more. You’re an operative now” Harper tells him)? Likewise, his first encounter with Cherevin (Branagh hamming away with his Sunday best Brit Russian accent) occasionally provides a good line or two. Ostensibly discussing jetlag, Cherevin comments, “That first night can be brutal”. “I survived” rejoinders Ryan. Yes, his name’s Ryan, Jack Ryan.
But the gambit that allows Ryan to go rooting about in Cherevin’s draws doesn’t pass muster. It involves Ryan getting pissed and making a spectacle of himself so Cathy is left with budding lothario Cherevin. We can certainly believe Pine’s Ryan is capable of such laddish behaviour, which is part of the problem. Lip service is paid to the shock (and shaking hands) Ryan experiences following his first kill, but unlike previous incarnations he actually takes to this macho bullshit like a duck to water. We believe in Ryan as a covert jock much more than we do as a bookworm who rises to the occasion. And the trading of stories of war wounds received at separate Afghan conflicts is terribly clumsy. I can see why they couldn’t resist, but they still should have. Nevertheless, the break-in is dramatic and breathless, with Costner’s Harper displaying solid sniper skills.
Unfortunately, as soon as the plot reaches the capture of Ryan’s intended the writing is on the wall. Cherevin has a suitably grim desire to make her eat a light bulb (it looks like one of the energy-saving variety) and launches into autopilot rhetoric concerning his dedication to his country. It’s difficult to believe it wasn’t lifted verbatim from a script 40 years old. Jack is now in full on action mode when it comes to saving his wife, with a moustache-twirling response from Chervin (“The attack is going to happen, Ryan! You can’t stop it!”)
If you decide to stop watching at this point, you won’t be missing anything. Apart from the curious sight of Brookside’s Sinbad (Michael Starke) as “Auto-Plant Worker”. I had to IDMB him to make certain I wasn’t hallucinating. Perhaps the CIA’s skills at tracking down their suspect (Alec Utgoff) are intended as a validation of all that nasty mass surveillance from which there is no turning back. If so, Ryan and soon-to-be wifey’s plucked-from-the air-deductions (she sees a picture of Wall Street and realises that’s where they plan to blow shit up; hurrah!) rather work against this. Once Jack climbs astride a motorbike and races to a confrontation with the terror monger, any lingering hope of a respectable conclusion has vanished into the ether. Sticking to the dubious Dark Knight Returns template, Ryan even makes off solo with the bomb, risking life and limb for the sake of 100,000 potential victims (this bit was a reshoot). The final scene has Harper and Ryan awaiting an audience with the President. Now Ryan’s hand trembles out of nervousness at the prospect of meeting such a great man; no longer is it a response to inflicting violence on others. He’s grown, you see. When Harper calls him a boy scout on a field trip, you think, no; he’s a frat boy in a girls’ dormitory.
There are some distinctive choices here – the attempt to differentiate Ryan from his peers by positioning him in a devoted, loving relationship and giving it screen time is at least a start. Keira Knightley doesn’t have the range of Anne Archer, who was woefully underserved opposite the Harrison Ford Ryan, but she acquits herself reasonably given the deficient material. This may be because I used to grimace at her lack of discernable acting skills, so anything that doesn’t seem outrageously bad now seems competent.
One might have hoped the success of Tinker Tailor would have encourage a more literary approach to a character who is regarded as something of a thinking man’s antidote to Bond. No such luck. As for the setting, better use is made of Moscow than A Good Day to Die Hard, but it may be time to sit up and take notice that both movies singularly fail with Mother Russia (Ghost Protocol gets the sole credit of recent blockbusters).
As for Costner, he isn’t really making the most of his second wind as a supporting player. He, and his rug, is aging very well, but he needs parts that service his laconic charm. He probably comes out of this better than any of his co-stars (except in the poster above, where he's been turned into Odo out of DS9), but the role itself is only what he brings to it; there’s nothing on the page. As such, it’s probably for the best if the rumoured spin-off featuring Harper doesn’t happen.
It’s debatable whether playing Clancy’s right wing hero has done any of the series’ leads any good. Baldwin’s potential as a star got stiffed almost as soon as he had his first big hit, and Connery stole the limelight anyway. Arguably, Harrison Ford’s decision to pick up Baldwin’s leftovers was the first sign of terminal career stupor. With no Indy he needed a franchise, but one that worked in favour of his tendency to sleepwalk was the worst decision he could have made. Affleck’s version arrived the same year as buddy Matt’s Jason Bourne, directly prior to a period where every choice Bennifer made seemed to spell the end of his career. He didn’t make anything of the part, which is probably why no one was itching for a return session (it did okay box office, though) And now Chris Pine, hopping from one Paramount franchise to another at either the behest of nurturing bigwigs or his agent. His career has turned into a bit of a mess; even his Kirk isn’t settling in as well as everyone hoped. Jack Ryan looks like he will be going back into mothballs. I doubt it will take another decade for him to resurface but, if the next move is as cobbled together as this, Paramount will have no joy with the character any time soon. Perhaps they should try him on TV. That might actually serve his more cerebral designs (which is not to suggest Clancy’s books are smart, but they have that intent), in contrast to his action-centric movies incarnations.