Monday, 29 September 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

Starring Chris Pine and Kenneth Branagh; co-starring Keira Knightley and Kevin Costner
Directed by Kenneth Branagh

A particular favourite read of my teenage years was the Jack Ryan series of novels by the late, great Tom Clancy.  Beginning with the supremely taut "The Hunt for Red October" and making their way through the preposterous-but-page-turner of a prequel "Patriot Games" and continuing with the excellent "Cardinal of the Kremlin" and "Clear and Present Danger", by way of another prequel "Red Rabbit", and a fleeting cameo in "Without Remorse" (itself about covert operative John Clark),  the books eventually saw the History Doctor turned CIA Analyst turned Politician become - somewhat fancifully, but by that stage who was arguing? - President of the USA.  The series was a mainstay of airport bookshops and propped-open doors for over 20 years, entering the popular language and earning a name-check from the Fun Lovin' Criminals en route.  Key to their success was the aura of credibility - particularly in the military / technical sphere - with which Clancy imbued his increasingly fantastic plots (Clancy also penned several factual books on various aspects of the military world).  Their length, around a good 700 pages each allowed for dense plots and intricate characterization (because we had to know exactly which High School that US Army General had attended), and lent them a certain gravitas.  They could not be dismissed as mere "airport fiction"; a Reaganite wet-dream, perhaps, but not that.

Clearly here was a goldmine to be exploited on the big screen.  Adaptations of such lengthy tomes might have been better suited to a television mini-series perhaps - or even an ongoing series - but the grand scope of the novels demanded a Hollywood-sized budget.  The cinematic life of Ryan got off to an impressive start in 1990 with "The Hunt for Red October".  Directed by John McTiernan (of "Die Hard" and "Predator" fame), the film saw Alec Baldwin take on the role of the young Dr Ryan, drawn into the CIA due to his theories on whether a Soviet submarine captain (Sean Connery - in full "all nations' accents are Scottish accents" mode) plans to defect to the US in his shiny new state of the art boat or not.  The movie did an admirable job of boiling down Clancy's novel to a manageable couple of hours, with only a few significant deviations from the book's plot; the climax, I believe, was actually better handled on-screen.

The story goes that the role of Ryan was originally offered to the era's golden boy, Kevin Costner, sizzlingly  hot off the back of "No Way Out", "Bull Durham", and "Field of Dreams".  Apparently he turned it down in order to make "Dances With Wolves", one of the dwindling number of genuine modern epics, for which Costner netted a Best Director and Best Film Academy Award in 1991; so he can't have been too upset.  But more of him later.  The role of Ryan passed to the significantly older Harrison Ford for the sequel (which really should have been a prequel) "Patriot Games", which sucked the out most exciting parts of the ridiculous novel and left us with a fairly routine revenge story, shackled with a hopelessly muddled take on The Troubles in Northern Ireland (there are "good" IRA guys, and "bad" IRA guys, don't you know?).  Ford was frankly wrong for the role, and although inverting the chronology of the novels disappointed this fan in particular, I still felt the film, on other counts, was pretty lacklustre in its own right.  Much more impressive was the post-Escobar war-on-drugs follow up, "Clear and Present Danger", a few years later.  Although I still had problems with Ford as Ryan, it was much more engaging and complex than its immediate predecessor, and still holds up pretty well these days, despite those archaic mid 1990s VDUs on show.  There's a certain synergy to the whole Jack Ryan becomes POTUS arc of the novels in light of Ford's appearance in the brainless actioner "Air Force One", as the President, no less, kicking terrorist Gary Oldman off his personal aircraft.  

With seven or so years passing before the production of the next in the series, terrorist nuclear attack thriller "The Sum of All Fears", starring Ben Affleck as Ryan, Ford rightly chose to step aside.  The film's release was understandably delayed due to the 9/11 atrocities, featuring as it does, a major terrorist attack on US soil.  Whereas the Ford films had retained some of the same actors in the roles of supporting characters, such as James Earl Jones as Ryan's mentor Admiral James Greer, this time round it was a whole new ballgame.  At the time it was a little edgy, and obviously during those years perceptions and opinions significantly changed.  I don't believe it was that well received, hence the lack of an immediate follow-up.  But it's actually not that bad a film.  There's a certain clunkiness creeping into the series perhaps, with the nuclear show down with Russia forming the climax; in the words of John Conner in "Terminator 2", "Aren't they our friends now?".  But it was well enough done, and I'd love to have seen what Liev Schrieber could have made of the role of Clark if they'd chosen to adapt one of those novels too.  I also liked Affleck as young Ryan, and never really felt the opprobrium afforded him during the wilderness years prior to the "Argo" triumph was valid.  Nevertheless, it seemed Ryan was done.  On the page he was the man in charge of the land of the Free.  On screen, well, he'd gone up in smoke with that nuke in Baltimore.

So we come to 2014, and a second attempted re-boot with "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit".  Clearly the character still has legs and cultural currency, so is worth resurrecting once more.  This time round we have Kenneth Branagh in the director's chair, as well as taking on acting duties as principal antagonist Victor Cherevin.  Chris Pine plays Ryan, young once more, and being recruited into the CIA again, with Kevin Costner becoming Ryan's mentor Commander Thomas Harper, replacing James Earl-Jones' unforgettable Admiral James Greer.  Keira Knightley does a surprisingly great job, and American accent, as Ryan's fiancĂ©e Cathy.  Plot-wise, we're in unfamiliar territory, as the script isn't based directly on a Clancy novel (although contrarians might argue it's not the first time).  But we are in a pseudo-familiar and deeply unsettling no-man's-land of one foot in the past cold war Clancyism, combined with new Hollywood war on terror age must make this work.  The Russians, still, are the Baddies - at time of watching, it seemed archaic and irrelevant, but in light of recent events, maybe not so much.  Frighteningly so, maybe. 

In this instance, Ryan is cherry-picked to join the CIA as a Finance Anaylst, because in the post-Lehman Brothers and (what do they call it?) "GFC" world, the biggest threat in the world is economic collapse.  "The second Great Depression", as Ryan refers to it.  His military record is preserved from the books, but his near-debilitating injury in a helicopter crash is transposed to the war in Afghanistan (Jeffrey Deaver similarly re-imagined James Bond's military career in that conflict in his novel "Carte Blanche").  Before you know it, Wall Street hotshot Ryan uncovers a plot by sneaky Russians to prop up T-Bonds but then stage an attack in America and dump them all just before the inevitable crash occurs, thus reaping a huge profit whilst crippling the US market.  So far so old-school, but yet so very new.  A trip to Moscow (which we all know and love now due to "Mission Impossible 4" and "A (not so) Good Day to Die Hard") unfolds with a combination of spy-movie staples (sneaking into the villain's office) with modern day action scenes of the highest calibre - a  brutal fight in Ryan's hotel room and a thrilling car chase being the highlights.  The inevitable race to stop the bomb back in New York feels a little familiar, but is injected with enough vigour by director Branagh that it's still pretty nerve-jangling.  At the heart of the story are two big issues.  One is Ryan being forced to do something which he never anticipated, that is going out into the field and being more than an analyst, and actually having to kill people.  The second is the necessity for secrecy which keeps him from being totally honest with the woman he wants to marry.  Both are played out convincingly.

Pine is a capable, indeed credible action hero.  Any worries about doubling up in the iconic role arena are quickly dispelled; if Henry Cavill can do Kal-El and Napoleon Solo, Ben Affleck can be Daredevil (hmm) and Batman, and indeed Harrison Ford can do Han Solo, Indiana Jones and Jack Ryan, why shouldn't Chris Pine play Captain Kirk and Jack Ryan too?  This feels like more of an ensemble cast than at most times before in this series, which serves to underline Ryan's greenness.   It is a fine cast - "fine" as in great, in some cases, "fine" as in "perfectly fine" in others. It's a nice touch that the Russian characters, when conversing with each other, do so in Russian.  Although having said that, Branagh's Russian-accented dialogue in English does seem a little pantomimey from time to time.  But the "beautiful beautiful "(*tm Dr. Gareth Higgins) Elena Velinkanova makes up for that in her brief role!

On the one hand this is a deeply old-fashioned film.  At one point Ryan meets a fellow covert operative in a cinema screening of an old film to exchange vital documents, a moment dripping with Cold War Cloak and Dagger trappings.   Yet on the other it feels almost desperately trying  to proclaim its relevance to the present day environment, with all its talk of crashing financial markets, tracking down the villains using Twitter and Facebook and every other social media outlet one would care to name, and a 9/11-evoking "catch the bomber in New York" climax.  Maybe when it was written it might have seen odd to cast the Russians as villains, but in the wake of the sickening events in the Ukraine and the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines plane, it seems chillingly appropriate.  I really wanted to like it but have to admit to being a tiny bit underwhelmed.  That's not to say it a bad film by any means, it was an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.  If they made a sequel I'd definitely go to see it, but I'm not convinced the box office numbers have been quite good enough to greenlight any such script.  It sounds mean-spirited to say that it feels like the sort of thing one would happily watch on a plane and be entertained, but not necessarily one you'd go out of your way to see.  A solid 7, I feel.  Better luck next time Jack, if it comes.