Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

jrsrHey, Russell, a new Jack Ryan film came out. Do you want to use this opportunity to expound your views on the series which are counter to the prevailing wisdom?

“Why, yes! Yes I do!”

For those uninterested in analysis of the previous films, here’s my short review of Shadow Recruit: It’s enjoyable and diverting, not without its shortcomings. Good performances, but mediocre story.

I was a big fan of the Jack Ryan novels by Tom Clancy… at least until they started to suck. (I think the last one I read was Red Rabbit, which was a prequel, and okay. But The Bear and the Dragon was a huge snooze.) I still believe that The Hunt for Red October and The Cardinal of the Kremlin were ghost written by the CIA in an attempt to telegraph to the Russians just how much we knew about the inner workings of their military. Once the Cold War ended, the CIA cut Clancy loose, and his books suffered for the loss. But that’s just me.

The great thing about Jack Ryan in the books, and the truly difficult high-wire act that Clancy undertook (pretty successfully throughout, actually) was to make Ryan an action hero without being an action hero. He got involved in operations despite never actually being an operative. He always seemed to sort of fall into the action against his will. That aspect of the character was handled perfectly in HFRO and Patriot Games (the two best of the series). It was less believeable in Clear and Present Danger. By the time we get to Shadow Recruit, the pretense is gone. He’s now officially the American James Bond. (He even dispatches his first kill in a bathroom.)

The Hunt for Red October was the perfect cold war film. The bad guy in the movie isn’t Tupolev, the other Russian sub commander. He’s merely a third act complication. The actual bad guy is the Cold War itself. The film masterfully portrays the two sides as these mammoth beasts of military prowess that are lumbering toward conflict. Ramius is the trigger for the conflict, and Ryan is the calming influence. That is not only a remarkable structure for a Hollywood film, it’s also a mirror of the time.

Patriot Games is a more personal story of heroism and family, wrapped up in geopolitics and terrorism. The tension between Ryan and Sean Miller (the Sean Bean character) is electric throughout the film. And the finale might have been a little too cliche, but I think it worked.

I’ve seen Clear and Present Danger at least twice, maybe three times. Major snooze. Terrible film.

The Sum of All Fears was the first reboot of the Jack Ryan character, and I really liked it. Affleck was fine. He got to have his “son of a bitch!” moment, and his romancing of Cathy is sweet. But it’s the other characters that make it sing. The mentor (Morgan Freeman), the President (James Cromwell), the creepy fixer guy (Colm Feore, who gets to play a very different character in Shadow Recruit!), the big bad (Alan Bates). That’s a lot of awesome. The story isn’t a simple cat and mouse (like Hunt) or a tale of revenge (like Games), it’s a mystery, a ticking clock, a big bomb. And more awesome… the bomb actually goes off! And how does Ryan finally save the day? Not with a gun or a karate chop. He saves it by being an analyst. All in all, a remarkable film.

So, as I’ve already said, in Shadow Recruit, the whole analyst thing is certainly part of the character, but it’s not his defining trait. He has fisticuffs and car chases. A tense phone call between him and the bad guy (with Kathy’s welfare in the balance) is the best thing in the film. But the bad guy’s scheme is a little doofy, the way the mentor (Kevin Costner) is actually in the field shooting people is unrealistic, and Kathy’s involvement is a little too convenient. In Patriot Games, Kathy is attacked because of a vendetta against Ryan. In this film, Kathy puts herself in danger. That makes the threat to her life somewhat less visceral.

But I certainly can’t complain about the performances. Everyone does a great job. Pine throws away most of his Kirk swagger for this role. Knightley dances on that fine line between damsel in distress and strong modern woman. Costner gets to offer better advice than he did in Man of Steel. But Kenneth Branagh outshines them all as a ruthless and brilliant terrorist mastermind. Every scene between him and Pine is great.

Hopefully, if this jump-starts the franchise again, the next film will have a little more of the Clancy plotting which, while always outsized, always felt organic and real.

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