Friday, January 17, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Kenneth Branagh and Tom Clancy are two people who I never expected to do a movie together.  Technically though, they never have, as Tom Clancy has joined that little Republican Fantasyland in the sky.  Kenneth Branagh might as well have joined him, as the energetic flourish he once brought to the Shakespeare movies of his youth seems to be completely dead and buried.  You'd think the mixture between Classical Theater and Neo-Conservative Techno Thrillers would result in an interesting kind of movie, at least one that was unique and memorable, but no.  This is Kenneth Branagh in his "Thor" mode, completely pedestrian and generic*, just barely putting in a complete effort.

That really describes the whole movie, its barely completely, there's nothing really wrong with any piece, but so what?  There's nothing here that you'd really want to see.  Tom Clancy was a bit of a nut, but he at least wrote interesting books that ignited the imagination of an entire generation of politicians - those very same politicians who lead us into the Iraq War and began the paranoid nightmare that the War on Terror has begun.  Let's ignore those implications, and just focus on the man.  He wrote books that a lot of people loved.  Sometimes they were right on the money, such as in "Clear and Present Danger" when Clancy guessed exactly what was going on America's covert drug wars in Colombia, and sometimes they were completely of their mind, such as when Japan built a new Empire and started World War III**, which led to a crazed kamikaze pilot to fly a commercial air liner right into the Capitol Building.  That was written seven years before 9/11.  Apparently though nothing Tom Clancy had written quite fit the studio's needs for "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit", because this is an entirely new story.  And no matter what your politics, you are going to truly miss ol' Tommy before the end of this movie.

This is the fifth Tom Clancy film to be adapted to the screen, all of them focused on his brilliant CIA analyst, Jack Ryan.  After portrayals by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck, the job of playing Clancy's primary superhero, a man who starts at the CIA, becomes a millionaire, becomes President, and builds a Conservative paradise across the globe, goes to Chris Pine, AKA the guy they want us to believe is Captain Kirk in the new Star Trek films.  Chris Pine might look like nothing more than a pretty face with barely any acting talent right now, but so did Ben Affleck in "The Sum of All Fears".  Maybe ten years from now Chris Pine will direct and star in a Best Picture winner, but I doubt it.  Either way, whether you like your Ryan in the Alec, Harrison, or Benjamin flavors, you will probably find "Shadow Recruit" to be the worst movie yet.

The movie's plot is meant to be a reboot of the Jack Ryan series, this one focused on his very first spy adventure.  Why are we rebooting the Jack Ryan movies?  Because "Casino Royale".  The James Bond movies were rebooted to incredible success several years ago, and now some studio wants to follow in those footsteps.  In this new universe, Jack Ryan was an Economics Doctorate living in London, until suddenly the 9/11 Attacks awakened his sleeping Patriotism genes, leading him to join the Marines and later the CIA as a secret operative working on Wall Street looking for terrorist plots against the nation's economy.  Ryan discovers one day a massive series of secret Russian accounts owned by Viktor Cherevin, a Russian Bond villain played by Kenneth Branagh.

I was generally excited when I first heard about this movie, which was only a few weeks ago, this being the January movie graveyard where Hollywood dumps all the movies that are obviously unmarketable during any other time of the year, that Kenneth Branagh was going to play the villain.  As an actor he could either give a great nuanced performance, or he could ham his ass off.  Kenny Branagh playing a mad Russian terrorist, count me in!  I saw Dr. Arliss Loveless from "Wild Wild West" in an ushanka, with a hammer and a sickle for hands.  Or maybe something more...


Instead Branagh basically sleepwalks through his own movie.  The villain injects some stuff into his arms and prays in an Eastern Orthodox Church, because I guess faiths that recite the Filioque incorrectly are menacing?  You never get much of a sense that this character is actually much of a threat, he's too straight-laced, and his goons are too consistently incompetent to ever manage to make for a fun movie.

Really, the entire movie has this air of purely by-the-numbers to it.  Its hard to say anybody is particularly good or bad in the movie, as their roles are simply uninteresting and involving.  Chris Pine is decent enough as Jack Ryan, but then again he's Chris Pine, and I'd really like to slam a baseball bat into his constant wormy expression of self-satisfaction.  Keira Knightley as the female lead is given as much of a dimensional character to work with as Natalie Portman has in the Thor movies.  Branagh must have thought since they looked the same, they should be written and directed the same - that is, without any effort at all.  Probably the strongest presence in the movie ends up being Kevin Costner as Ryan's CIA mentor, who manages to at least look cool despite having nearly nothing to work with.

Worse, "Shadow Recruit" is a movie with maybe three or four entirely perfunctory action scenes, none of which will exactly scratch your movie-going itch.  The trailers teased a red herring plotline where Portman would turn out to be a double-agent working for the Ruskie bad guy, but this is not the case at all.  There is no double-cross, twist, or surprise of any kind to be found in "Shadow Recruit".  There is simply nothing to enjoy here.  Even the ultimate plan of the bad guys turns out to be a convoluted piece of economic terrorism, where Cherevin would buy two trillion dollars of US currency.  Then after a staged terrorist attack on Wall Street, he would dump all the dollars and kill the US economy by destroying the value of the dollar.  Which well... isn't quite as exciting as a rogue Soviet Typhoon Class submarine captained by Sean Connery, now is it?  I'm not even sure if this plan would even begin to work, then again, economics has always been my intellectual weak spot.

Though if you want a plot hole:  why exactly does Cherevin completely ignore the fact that Jack Ryan killed off his hired assassin in the first half hour of the movie?  Then suddenly he's surprised when this guy manages to break into his lair and steal his evil plans?

"Oh well, at least I'm still gorgeous."

Whatever.  I guess the ultimate point to come away from "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" is that its really nothing worth remembering.  It is in no way clever, it just barely manages to be competent.  Out there in the world there is an entire galaxy of fare more exciting spy thrillers to enjoy:  James Bond, Mission: Impossible, Jason Bourne.  Speaking of Jason Bourne, "Shadow Recruit" ends with a very lame bike chase, a moment that managed to make me nostalgic for "The Bourne Legacy", a movie that two years ago I thought was the bottom of the barrel in terms of mediocrity.  Now that movie seems inspired, if not even witty.  At the very least, it knew how to film a damn cool motorbike chase.  So really, why did we need this "Shadow Recruit" movie at all?

Of course, you know the answer to that already.

We didn't.

* If anything Branagh was far more bewildered making "Thor".  Halfway through the movie he seemed to completely run out of visual ideas, and just started through around Dutch Angles, maybe in an attempt to make the movie "comic book-y".  I could sense desperation behind that camera.

** Tom Clancy's crazy imaginary geopolitical plots continue to inspire writers to this day.  For example, in "Call of Duty: Ghosts", South America, of all places, becomes an evil empire and invades the United States.  All of this is ultimately to feed the fantasies of wignut right-wing fuckers who honestly miss the days of the Cold War and Nazi Germany, because at least history wasn't so boring.  Considering our brutal and unjustifiably awful treatment of Latin America over the past century and so, we have no right at all to turn them into the invading bad guys.  Just look at what the United Fruit Company did to Guatemala in the 1950s in order to keep growing fucking bananas with cheap labor.  Or the Contra Killers of the 1980s.  Or the aforementioned Army Commando actions in Colombia against drug dealers.  Or going further back, in 1855 when some Southerners led by William Walker took over Nicaragua and tried to turn it into a slave colony.  Its a long very unhappy history, one which they do not teach in schools.  This is like the British writing paranoid thrillers about Indians invading them.  People who enjoyed that game for the storyline:  please, fuck right off.


  1. I watched Ken Branagh's version of Macbeth recently, which was done with National Theatre last year. Staged in a deconsecrated church! Intense direction and acting! The mud, the blood! I think it was the production which has best communicated the despair and tragic spiral of Macbeth to me (and how straightforward and bloody the play is >_>). Also that Scotland is a bally cold and gloomy place.

    If he's still got it on stage, I wonder what on earth has gotten into him when it comes to films...

    1. I saw a production of MacBeth starring Patrick Stewart on Broadway about five years back. Very bloody, a bit pretentious, (there's one scene that repeats and has an orchestrated rewind button, and the witches rap their songs), but Stewart was fantastic and the actress playing Lady MacBeth was even better.