Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 19th January 2014
It’s hard to believe Alec Baldwin was the first celluloid Jack Ryan, back in the day when we still had celluloid and CIA agents still fought the Soviets (as in The Hunt for Red October), before Harrison Ford took up the mantle against the IRA in Patriot Games and later in Clear and Present Danger.
But when a forgettable Ben Affleck had a stab at the younger Ryan in 2002’s The Sum of All Fears, Ryan suddenly lost his foothold as the ultra-capable, smarty-pants CIA recruit to Affleck’s best mate, Matt Damon, who burst on to the spy thriller scene as Jason Bourne and has pretty much ruled the genre ever since.
Giving the franchise a reboot, Star Trek‘s Chris Pine plays the titular hero, studying clever-clogs things in London when 9/11 happens, and promptly chucking in his thesis to go fight in Afghanistan. (Asked why he requested such a low-level detail, he earnestly replies: “If I’m gonna serve, I’m gonna serve.”)
With Valour practically tattooed on his forehead, Ryan is plunged into a situation that sees Kevin Costner’s recruiter woo him with the usual “make a difference” come-ons that are thankfully tempered by Brit Kenneth Branagh’s restrained direction (also seen in his intelligent handling of Thor).
Fast forward a decade and, although an analyst with only three weeks’ field training under his belt, Ryan is tasked with assessing a new Russian threat to America. He heads to Moscow where, following a fantastic bathroom fight scene, things quickly get exciting and the tension remains high from then.
There are a few problems, and I don’t mean just with plot holes (surely Russian baddies shoot first and ask questions later?). Granted, Branagh knows better than to pump up the brass band and roll out the Stars & Stripes, but he can’t resist the cliches of the brutal, opera-loving Russian oligarch (played by Branagh himself) and scenes of shadowy figures peering into heavy Hollywood rain.
But it’s all enormous fun, and with Branagh and Keira Knightley maintaining their accents, Pine is left to flex his new muscles and deliver on the action-man goods once and for all.
Unsurprisingly, this latest Jack Ryan adventure seems to have learned a thing or two from both Bourne (the soundtrack and zippy editing) and the recent preponderance of superhero “origin stories”, taking us back to Ryan’s pre-sleuthing days and setting him up as the new go-to guy for terrorist attacks.
On the strength of his first outing, Bourne had better watch his back.