Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Posted on January 16, 2014 at 6:01 pm

jack-ryan-shadow-recruitThere are three conclusions to draw from this reboot of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character. First, it plays like an infomercial for NSA access to, well, pretty much everything. Second, no matter how attractive the actors and how thrilling the score, there is no way to make it exciting to watch someone banging on a keyboard and staring intently at a computer screen as the “loading” indicator creeps along.  Third, when spy movies run out of other ideas, they conclude that the fate of the United States and the rest of the world is not enough to hold our attention, so it must be time to kidnap the hero’s girlfriend.

Chris Pine (“Star Trek’s” Captain Kirk) takes over the role of Jack Ryan from Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck to play Tom Clancy’s egghead action hero, Jack Ryan, PhD.  Bringing him up to date, we see him as a student at the London School of Economics, helplessly watching the terrorist attack of 9/11 on television, then enlisting in the Marines, being shot down, saving two of his men despite the gravest of injuries, and then, in rehab to learn to walk again, meeting two people who will change his life.  One is Cathy, a pretty med student (Keira Knightly, with an American accent).  The other is a guy in a suit named Harper who recruits Ryan to work for the CIA, deep undercover…on Wall Street.    I really liked the idea that the government would recognize the threat to national security from the too big to fail financial institutions, but it turns out that isn’t it.  Ryan was sent to Wall Street to spy on the same old bad guys we always spy on, Russians, this time trying to manipulate our financial markets.  

Director Kenneth Branagh’s biggest mistake was in the casting of the villain: Kenneth Branagh.  We know he’s evil because he has a sleek, spare, shiny black office and he sits there grimly, listening to an ethereal aria and beating up a guy who was clumsy in giving him a shot. Branagh seems to enjoy playing bad guys — most recently in “The Wild Wild West,” “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” and “Pirate Radio.”  He’s better at playing the uptight bureaucratic type (or the self-important type as he did in “My Week with Marilyn”) than the larger-than-life bad guy needed for a Bond-style film.  In fairness, the screenplay, originally written as a stand-alone and then adapted for the Jack Ryan character, lacks the Tom Clancy magic that makes his stories so absorbing, the authenticity of the technological details and the depth of character.  Compare this pallid Russian bad guy and his generic compatriots to the superbly crafted, complex Soviet characters in “The Hunt for Red October,” from Sean Connery’s captain to Joss Ackland’s diplomat.  The other big problem is the increasing ridiculousness of the storyline.  The United States has such a crackerjack team in Moscow that we can send in the espionage equivalent of magic elves to secretly remake a luxury hotel room that has been shattered in a shoot-out/fight/drowning so that in less than a couple of hours it is like new, with just a little wet grout (and of course the removal of the dead body) to show that anything had been changed.  And yet, when they need to do the one thing any spy team should learn on day one, breaking into a secure location, the only one who can do it is our boy Jack, the PhD from Wall Street?  Once the break-in takes place, it just gets silly, with a lot of intent people banging on keyboards and getting instant access to thousands of data sources and a series of increasingly implausible bang bang with even less plausible banter.  Ryan is the increasingly implausible Swiss Army knife of superspies, equally adept at hand-to-hand combat, stunt driving, and hacking.

You’ve got to grade January releases on a curve, and by that standard, it barely passes muster.  In any other month, it would be strictly wait for DVD.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive scenes of spy-style peril and violence including chases, crashes, and explosions, guns, knives, drowning, fights, and terrorism, references to painkiller dependency and abuse and alcohol abuse, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: Does this make you feel differently about how much access the government should have to private data?  What qualities make a good spy?

If you like this, try: the other Jack Ryan movies, especially “The Hunt for Red October,” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain”

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Series/Sequel Spies

List: Jack Ryan

Posted on January 12, 2014 at 3:49 pm

As we prepare for this week’s release of the Jack Ryan prequel, “Shadow Recruit,” you might want to take a look at the other thrillers based on Tom Clancy’s dashing hero.  Watch how each one of these stories reflects its era.

The Hunt for Red October  (1990) Alec Baldwin played Ryan with an all-star cast including Sean Connery, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, and Fred Thompson, in a story about a Soviet submarine captain who wants to defect.

Patriot Games (1992) Harrison Ford took over as Ryan, who foils an IRA terrorist attack and then himself becomes the target.

Clear and Present Danger (1994) Ford again, this time pulled into an illegal US war against a Colombian drug cartel.

The Sum of All Fears (2002) Ben Affleck took over as a younger Jack Ryan, who has to stop a terrorist attack at a Baltimore football game.

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Lists Spies

Tribute: Tom Clancy

Posted on October 2, 2013 at 2:35 pm

I once boarded an airplane and counted a dozen different Tom Clancy books being read in those pre-Kindle days as I walked down the row.  On another trip, I flew on four planes and on all four was seated next to someone reading a Tom Clancy book.  Clancy, who died today at age 66, was the master of the “airplane novel,” the gripping thriller that is just right for passing the time while traveling.  Clancy’s trademark was the detailed descriptions of weapons and other military technology.  He made it all seem both fantastic and realistic.  That’s because it was both.  Clancy was as famous for his meticulous research into dense and arcane government reports.  That research produced his nonfiction “Guided Tour” series about military machinery. That’s just the background, though. What made his books come alive was the intensity of the peril in his plots and the integrity and dedication of the characters, especially Jack Ryan and Admiral Greer.

Clancy’s Jack Ryan books have been made into four movies (so far): The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger) (Alec Baldwin as Ryan in the first one and Harrison Ford in the second and third), plus The Sum of All Fears, a prequel with Ben Affleck. “Jack Ryan: Shadow One” is now in production, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring “Star Trek’s” Chris Pine.

“The Hunt for Red October” is one of my favorite thrillers, with an all-star cast and a sensational storyline.


But I hope Clancy will also be remembered for his extraordinary kindness, as shown in this story he wrote about his friendship with a very, very sick little boy. He will be missed.

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