Jack Ryan Gets A Makeover, And A Quick Trip To Moscow

Jack Ryan Gets A Makeover, And A Quick Trip To Moscow

3:05pm Jan 17, 2014
Chris Pine and Keira Knightley anchor Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, opposite Kevin Costner as a CIA veteran and Kenneth Branagh as the story's big bad.
Chris Pine and Keira Knightley anchor Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, opposite Kevin Costner as a CIA veteran and Kenneth Branagh as the story's big bad.
Larry Horricks / Paramount Pictures

A franchise is what we used to call a Burger King or a Shell station, but nowadays the word appears more often in relation to movies: the Star Wars franchise, the Hunger Games franchise, the Jack Ryan franchise — or in the case of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the Jack Ryan franchise reboot. I don't know what's more depressing: that what fires up studio execs is the hunt for a new franchise or that critics have adopted this business lingo uncritically.

Maybe a business reporter would be the best person to talk about Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. From an artistic standpoint, I found it competent, moderately suspenseful and without a single surprise — apart from the fact that its director is Kenneth Branagh, who has come a long, grim way from his film directing debut in the late '80s, Shakespeare's Henry V. Come to think of it, that was a remake, and the Henry character appeared in two other plays — though I'm confident Shakespeare never referred to "the Henry franchise."

And Jack Ryan is no Henry. Created by the late novelist Tom Clancy, he's a Wall Street guy turned CIA agent turned action hero. He has appeared in four big movies: The Hunt for Red October starred Alec Baldwin, who gave up Ryan and was replaced by Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Then came an attempted reboot called The Sum of All Fears with Ben Affleck, which did pretty well but didn't lead to more movies.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit launches a new storyline, with a young Jack played by Chris Pine, who's also the young Captain Kirk in the reboot of the Star Trek franchise for the same studio, Paramount. He's the go-to franchise guy, I guess, though I'm not sure why. He's a good enough actor — he seethes credibly and moves well, but there's nothing funky or idiosyncratic about him. He's just a guy.

The movie begins with Ryan as a student at the London School of Economics when the planes hit the World Trade Center. So he joins the Marines and gets shot down in Afghanistan. As he's rolled into the emergency room, a Marine says Ryan personally dragged two survivors out of the plane. "With a broken back?" asks the doctor. The message is: This guy isn't just an economics wonk. He's the man.

As Ryan struggles to walk at Walter Reed Medical Center, Kevin Costner shows up and offers him a CIA job — undercover in a Wall Street firm. Fast-forward to 10 years later, when he uncovers a Russian plot to destroy the U.S economy. In no time he's dispatched to Moscow to confront the likely mastermind, played by Branagh himself.

The movie is slow and plodding until an attempt on Ryan's life and the first brutal gun-and-fisticuffs scene, shot mostly in jangly close-ups. Then Ryan's doctor girlfriend, played by Keira Knightley, shows up in Moscow because she doesn't know he's CIA and thinks he's having an affair. She's quickly embroiled in the cloak-and-dagger stuff, leading to a quarrel that's the only memorable scene in the picture, thanks in part to Costner's expert underplaying.

That scene is the start of a long and clever third act that begins in a fancy Moscow restaurant and ends in the Hudson River, involving decent fights, noisy car chases and the usual ticking time bomb. I found a lot of holes in the plot, though to point them out here would spoil too much. But espionage movies are often fun — it's the brainy popcorn genre — and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit hits its marks.

The problem is the marks themselves. They're too low. Mission: Impossible, the Bourne series, TV's 24 — they're all more gripping, and the last Mission: Impossible movie, Brad Bird's Ghost Protocol, was sensational. Branagh brings no style to Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and no heart. For once that business word franchise seems all too apt.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The novelist Tom Clancy died last year but his most famous character, CIA analyst Jack Ryan, gets a new backstory in "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit." The film stars Chris Pine as the young Ryan, Keira Knightley and Kenneth Branagh, who also directed it. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: A franchise is what we used to call a Burger King or a Shell station but nowadays, the word appears more often in relation to movies: the "Star Wars" franchise, the "Hunger Games" franchise, the "Jack Ryan" franchise. Or, in the case of "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," the Jack Ryan franchise reboot. I don't know what's more depressing - that what fires up studio execs is the hunt for a new franchise, or that critics have adopted this business lingo uncritically?

Maybe a business reporter would be the best person to talk about "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit." From an artistic standpoint, I found it competent, moderately suspenseful, and without a single surprise - apart from the fact that its director is Kenneth Branagh, who's come a long, grim way from his film directing debut in the late '80s, Shakespeare's "Henry V." Come to think of it, that was a remake, and the Henry character appeared in two other plays - though I'm confident Shakespeare never referred to the "Henry" franchise."

Jack Ryan is no Henry. Created by the late novelist Tom Clancy, he's a Wall Street guy turned CIA agent turned action hero. He has appeared in four big movies. "The Hunt for Red October" starred Alec Baldwin, who gave up Ryan and was replaced by Harrison Ford in "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger." Then came a reboot called "The Sum of All Fears," with Ben Affleck. It did pretty well but didn't lead to more movies.

"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" launches a new storyline, with a young Jack Ryan played by Chris Pine, who's also the young Capt. Kirk in the reboot of the "Star Trek" franchise for the same studio, Paramount. He's the go-to franchise guy, I guess, though I'm not sure why. He's a good enough actor. He seethes credibly and moves well, but there's nothing funky or idiosyncratic about him. He's just a guy.

The movie begins with Ryan as a student at the London School of Economics when the planes hit the World Trade Center. So he joins the Marines and gets shot down in Afghanistan. As he's rolled into the emergency room, a Marine says Ryan personally dragged two survivors out of the plane. And the doctor says, with a broken back? The message is this guy isn't just an economics wonk, He's the man.

As Ryan struggles to walk at Walter Reed Medical Center, Kevin Costner shows up and offers him a CIA job - undercover in a Wall Street firm. Ten years later, he uncovers a Russian plot to destroy the U.S. economy and in no time, he's dispatched to Moscow to confront the likely mastermind - played by Branagh himself. The movie is slow and plodding until an attempt on Ryan's life and the first brutal gun-and-fisticuffs scene, which is mostly shot in jangly close-ups.

Then Ryan's doctor girlfriend, played by Keira Knightley, shows up in Moscow because she doesn't know he's CIA and thinks he's having an affair. She's quickly embroiled in the cloak-and-dagger stuff, leading to a quarrel that's the only memorable scene in the picture thanks in part to Costner's expert underplaying.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT")

CHRIS PINE: (As Jack) You're not involving her in this.

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: (As Cathy) You involved me in this by not telling me.

PINE: (As Jack) You've got to get her out of here. Send her home.

KNIGHTLEY: (As Cathy) Well, what are you going to tell Cherevin? That I post...

PINE: (As Jack) These are dangerous people, Cathy. You cannot be here.

KNIGHTLEY: (As Cathy) If you'd told me who you really were, I wouldn't be.

PINE: (As Jack) I took an oath. I took an oath. I couldn't tell you unless we were married and you wouldn't marry me.

KNIGHTLEY: (As Cathy) Oh. That's why you wanted to marry me? So that you could tell somebody...

PINE: (As Jack) No. Come on.

KNIGHTLEY: (As Cathy) ...you were in the CIA?

PINE: (As Jack) Of course not. I...

KNIGHTLEY: (As Cathy) You lied to me for three years, and you were good at it. I think you actually...

PINE: (As Jack) Cathy.

KNIGHTLEY: (As Cathy)...enjoyed it.

PINE: (As Jack) Can we have a minute, please?

KEVIN COSTNER: (As William Harper) No. You can't.

KNIGHTLEY: (As Cathy) I would like to talk to Jack alone, please.

COSTNER: (As William Harper) This is geopolitics. It's not couples therapy. Do I really have to remind you what's at stake here, Jack? There's a very real scenario here where we don't get out of this alive - any of us.

EDELSTEIN: That scene is the start of a long and clever third act that begins in a fancy Moscow restaurant and ends in the Hudson River. That third act has decent fights, noisy car chases and the usual ticking time bomb. I found a lot of holes in the plot, though to point them out here would spoil too much. But espionage movies are often fun. It's the brainy popcorn genre, and "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" hits its marks.

The problem is the marks themselves. They're too low. "Mission: Impossible," the "Bourne" series, TV's "24" - they're all more gripping. And the last "Mission: Impossible" movie - "Ghost Protocol," directed by Brad Bird - was sensational. Kenneth Branagh brings no style to "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," and no heart. For once, that business word "franchise" seems all too apt.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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