A hell of a ride: Branagh, Pine infuse Clancy franchise with new energy
With Oscar nominations announced yesterday and the slate of Serious Award-Worthy films soon to be on their way out of theaters, it’s time to make way for some rousing old-fashioned movie-going fun. Kenneth Branagh has helped us on that front with the somewhat awkwardly titled Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, his inspired and highly entertaining reboot of the late author Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series. Branagh and screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp have created an entirely new story for Clancy’s CIA agent character, the first not actually based on any of Clancy’s books. Koepp’s previous credits include 2012’s Premium Rush, the excellent Manhattan bicycle chase movie, and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit benefits tremendously from that same adrenaline-fueled, frenetic, thrill-a-minute aesthetic.
Of course if you’re going to do a reboot, it helps to have Chris Pine on board; just as he brought fresh bravado to the young Captain Kirk in the new Star Trek overhaul, Pine here brings a similar brash confidence to the young Jack Ryan. Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck have played Ryan in the four previous movies, but for a story about Ryan’s beginnings, Pine, with his piercing blue eyes, magnetic intelligence, and quick wit is the perfect choice. Pine shows us a young man’s awakening from smartest-kid-in-the room in his student days, to wounded marine, to cerebral CIA intelligence analyst, to, finally, instinctually sharp CIA field agent. Ryan’s on-screen growth is believable and compelling, with Pine capturing the nuances and doubts of each stage of Ryan’s professional development over the ten years the movie depicts.
In terms of plot, the picture is a fairly straightforward action film, which is refreshing after recent convoluted espionage fare like the rather dull and chilly Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from a few years ago. Instead, in a throwback to spy movies of yesteryear, in this picture, the Russians are back as the enemy (after a spate of North Korean villains the past few years), and it’s always clear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Koepp and Cozard’s snappy script also helps to keep the picture lively and engaging.
So we have newbie CIA compliance officer Ryan, a Ph.D. in economics (of course) embedded in a big Wall Street finance firm discovering anomalies in a slew of Russian accounts managed by one Viktor Cherevin (Branagh) in Moscow. Ryan alerts his superior and mentor, Thomas Harper (the always capable Kevin Costner), and pretty soon it’s off to Moscow for young Ryan, where he is quickly turned from desk-job lackey into operations field agent, after having the bad luck of facing an assassin within minutes of arriving in Moscow.
The picture takes off from there, with Ryan discovering the extent of Cherevin’s evil master plan (terrorist attacks and global economic collapse – the usual stuff), and frantically trying to beat the inevitable doomsday clock to save himself, his fiancé Cathy (Keira Knightley), and, well, pretty much the entire world. But it’s all great fun, with Branagh, the male Meryl Streep of foreign accents, sounding legitimately Russian and creating an appropriately icy, frightening villain. Mikhail Baryshnikov even makes an uncredited cameo as Cherevin’s steely no-nonsense boss, speaking Russian the entire time, and looking like he’s thoroughly enjoying himself. After moping around as Carrie Bradshaw’s sullen artist boyfriend in Sex and the City years ago, Baryshnikov no doubt leapt at the chance for an acting gig in his native tongue, where he’s allowed to menace more than just one self-centered New York fashionista.
Speaking of which, Keira Knightley as Cathy is the only one given short-shrift here; unfortunately she isn’t given much to do besides wonder if her boyfriend is having an affair, and then, later, when she finds out no, there’s not another woman, it’s just, you know, the CIA (whew!), she ends up as the stereotypical damsel in distress. But even that trope is somewhat forgivable, as the situation lends itself to a terrific car chase scene through the streets of Moscow, which we have to get through so we can get to the chase scene through the streets of Manhattan… and in a true popcorn action flick like this one, that’s all we really want to see.
Perhaps Cathy will be given more of a storyline in a follow up picture; she’s a doctor, after all, and now she’s in on all the excitement. And so are we. At one point in the picture, Ryan introduces himself to someone key as “Ryan. Jack Ryan,” a clever nod to the ultimate spy movie hero, James Bond. Branagh’s picture certainly shares the fast-paced style and tone of the best of the Bond pictures, and if Chris Pine stays at the helm as Ryan, his name may become as indelibly linked to a great American spy as Sean Connery’s is to his British counterpart. In the meantime, we can have the pleasure of watching Pine build the character, in the spirit of a true Saturday-matinee adventure.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit opens in Bay Area theaters today.