Saturday, January 18, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

I describe myself as a "somewhat lapsed" Tom Clancy fan in the eFilmCritic review, and I think that's fair. I still love the kind of story he writes, but I haven't been enough of a fan to buy the "Op-Center", "Net Force", and whatever other series he created for a long time. His name on a bunch of video games didn't even make me blink. And, I'm not going to lie, The Teeth of the Tiger ticked me off so much that seeing co-writers on the next Jack Ryan-series book acted as an incentive for me to pick it up. And while the next couple were better, I've allowed three Clancy hardcovers to pile up over the last couple of years. To be completely honest, the main reason I didn't get the last one as an e-book was that Clancy died and I figured that, what with it being either the last or second-to-last (depending how far he and his co-writer got on the next one), I may as well complete the set.

It's not just the flood of diluted product that made me a less enthusiastic fan, though. As I said, The Teeth of the Tiger, his first post-9/11 novel both in terms of publication date and content, was pretty terrible in many ways. Both it and Red Rabbit are the result of him wanting to tell stories with younger versions of his characters after being around the film version of The Sum of All Fears, Paramount's first attempt to reboot the series with a younger version of Jack Ryan, and I must admit that Jack Jr. didn't click with me at all. He turned out to be even more of a Mary Sue than the character's father but without any sort of backstory where he worked his way up, and every time his name showed up in print, I couldn't help but wish I was reading about the other Jack Ryan. The book seemed to stop halfway through rather than end, and even without the politics, it didn't surprise me that this was the last we saw of the series until th co-writers came aboard seven years later. It was bad enough that Clancy looked like he was done.

But, ah, the politics. 9/11 didn't mess Clancy up in the same way it did some folks, but it did make him double down on his conservatism and pro-military/intelligence leanings even while I was thinking that we really needed to make sure that we as Americans don't sacrifice either our civil liberties or our connection with the rest of the world in order to fight these battles. There is a glee to the torture scenes in some of Clancy's post-9/11 books that I just couldn't stomach, along with characters spouting some pretty hateful things about Muslims in general (except the Saudis - for some reason, Clancy and his stand-ins admire them despite their being just as autocratic and discriminatory as any of their neighbors). The lectures on how "the other party" were socialists destroying America were just icing on the cake.

Shadow Recruit, at least, makes a fairly strong attempt to avoid that. Early on, Jack Ryan points out that the CIA and the rest of the United States's intelligence services aren't much liked because of things like waterboarding and rendition, and Costner's Harper says that's not his team's doing. It's not a stinging condemnation, but it's probably just enough for those of us in the audience who don't want to endorse such activities in real life. Branagh and the writers also make sure the final scenes, where Ryan and Harper stitch various bits of intelligence together to figure out where the main attack will take place, is fast-moving enough that we don't really have time to think of what kind of domestic surveillance it requires.

That's a lot of words to talk about why I'm not the fan of this series that I used to be, and why, in this case, the studio was probably better off stepping away from the original author's works even though, unlike with James Bond, there are still plenty of good books to adapt (and, heck, you probably could actually do an interesting non-period adaptation of The Cardinal of the Kremlin now!). I don't mean to speak ill of the recently-deceased in doing so; truth be told, if anybody has reason to be messed up by 9/11, it's the guy who wrote the end of Debt of Honor and then talked about how he ran it past friends of his in the intelligence community only to hear there was no plan for such a situation. At any rate, those last few books he worked on seemed to have non-Muslim villains, so maybe they'll be more enjoyable when I get to them.

As to the movie itself, I liked it, a bit more than I expected. Getting bumped from the holidays to January often isn't a great sign, although I've heard that it was more because post-production went long than Paramount really feeling like they had a clunker; I wouldn't be shocked if they discovered the Jack Ryan brand wasn't as strong as they thought, hence the name change from "Jack Ryan" to "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit". I'm kind of surprised that they didn't go with "Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit"; it works for James Bond, and maybe Clancy's name means something to the gamers who may never read one of his books or connected his name to the first four Ryan movies.

The Jack Ryan series is approaching Bond for turnover in the lead cast despite the latter having a thirty-year head start: Four actors in five movies, with only Harrison Ford playing the role twice while Alec Baldwin and Ben Affleck were both one-and-done. The thing is, it almost doesn't matter; Ryan isn't a particularly complicated character with particular quirks that come out or a changing outlook; he needs a guy we can buy as capable of handling both the mental and physical challenges thrown at him, and all four from Baldwin to Chris Pine are that. Pine is somewhat more memorable because he gets to play Ryan young and cocky enough that all the rough edges haven't been worn off yet. Heck, the Star Trek actor does the Kirk Smirk at one point, and it makes me wonder if he doesn't have a future in screen villainy.

This one's villain is Kenneth Branagh, and I have to say, it's a bit odd to see him doing these big studio pictures as a director, even if it's good work for him as an actor. I can't really blame him; the mid-aughts had to be crushing, with his Sleuth remake getting a tiny release, As You Like It going straight to cable a month before its DVD release, and The Magic Flute just showing up on home video in 2013 after sitting on the shelf for seven years. It's no wonder that over the past few years, he's taken to directing big studio franchise films: Thor for Marvel, this for Paramount, the upcoming live-action Cinderella for Disney when he was announced as doing Thor, I remember thinking this was a good move for both, in that Marvel got a guy who was much better than a journeyman and Branagh got the chance to show the industry that he could be trusted with large sums of money. I didn't really expect it to be his new career. Then again, even the Shakespeare he did in his youth was both interspersed with things like Dead Again and done in a way to appeal to the mainstream; he's always been an entertainer. I still kind of hope that he's building up a ton of goodwill that he can spend on something as ambitious as that full-text, shot-on-65mm Hamlet, even if he and Kevin Kline are probably too old for that Two Gentlemen of Verona movie I've always dreamed about.

Oh, and while I'm thinking of Branagh doing stuff for Paramount: WHY THE HECK IS DEAD AGAIN NOT AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY?

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 January 2014 in Regal Fenway #11 (first-run, 4K DCP)

It seems a little silly that the advertising for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit talked about "redefining the Tom Clancy thriller", as if "Tom Clancy" was a genre rather than a specific author, but the truth is, it always has been, even before Clancy started franchising his name and using co-authors on the more recent Jack Ryan novels. And while this latest run at Ryan doesn't do anything as grandiose as that, it's an entertaining enough thriller that maybe does a better job of bringing a Cold War franchise into a post-9/11 world than Clancy himself managed.

The attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon is now a formative event in Jack Ryan's life, happening while he was studying economics in London. This leads him to join the military and be recruited by the CIA after an injury leaves him with a long recovery; handler Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) places him in a Wall Street brokerage firm to ferret out the people who fund terrorists. Now, Ryan (Chris Pine) has discovered a trail leading back to Russian oligarch Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), whose plot may lead to global economic catastrophe.

"Global economic catastrophe" doesn't quite sound as viscerally terrifying as nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists, but give screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp credit; they make a case for the stakes being high even if the trigger and mechanics of the plot sometimes sound like one would need Ryan's PhD to understand the whole of it. They also do a fair job on the Batman Begins elements - things like Ryan's injury and recovery, work in brokerage firms, and meeting Dr. Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley) have always been a part of the character's backstory without being at the forefront until this back-to-the-beginning project. Some of those bits may not necessarily be that important, but their inclusion does actually do a fair job of making this character feel like Jack Ryan, rather than just Paramount reusing a familiar name.

Full review at EFC.

No comments: