Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and now Chris Pine have all played Tom Clancy’s famous Jack Ryan over the course of the past 24 years. In the first movie, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, Jack Ryan isn’t even on the poster; Baldwin is credited under Sean Connery’s massive name and mug, and even below the actual title. Now, his name’s right there in the title (and comprised the whole title before that “Shadow Recruit” subtitle was arbitrarily tacked on). However, this may be the least Jack Ryan-y Jack Ryan movie to date. It feels more of a product for the post-HOMELAND/Jason Bourne spy scene than a legit origin story for this enduring literary/cinematic figure. Is it an entertaining flick? Sure, at least for the first two-thirds. But it’s fleeting, and ultimately, fairly rudimentary. We’ve seen this flick before, and even though we liked it the first time(s), the film lacks the originality and freshness to distinguish it against the Jack Ryan flicks (and espionage thrillers) that came before it.
In the first scene, we are immediately put in the nail-biter blockbuster mood by witnessing Jack Ryan watching the towers go down on 9/11. He enlists in the Marines, but when a chopper attack leaves him almost permanently handicapped, he’s recruited to work for a shadowy CIA figure played by Kevin Costner. His job is to go back and get the economics degree he eschewed for military service, and to report on Wall Street wrongdoings by getting a job with one of the higher-up financial firms. Cut to 10 years later; he’s jogging around Manhattan like a champ, he’s in with the head of his company, and the cute physical therapy chick that got him on his feet is now his kinda-fiancee (plus, she’s played by Keira Knightley, so you know the dame’s got class). He sees some right shadiness going on in some Russian accounts, and Costner has him go to Moscow to investigate the matter personally (his excuse is that no one else on their team ever knows what the fuck he’s talking about). He hasn’t even put his bag down in his hotel room before he’s getting shot at, followed around, and placed directly in the crosshairs of villainous industrialist Kenneth Branagh. So Ryan has to play Branagh into thinking he’s not onto him, figure out the economic tinkering that he’s clearly guilty of, and stay clear of roving Russian assassins, all the while keeping his girlfriend in the dark about who he is and what he’s doing. Then they get word of an impending terrorist attack on U.S. soil…
I can’t say I was riveted for the whole length of the picture, but I can say this: Branagh can direct. Even when the narrative is taking turns that are maybe too pat and by-the-numbers (would Ryan’s girl really be so cool with her boyfriend being a spook that she not only accepts it, but plays a direct role in his strategy?), the scope and professionalism of the film shine through. It’s when Branagh lets the story settle down enough for you to take a deep breath and linger on the triviality of the plot that the film’s flaws start to become apparent. We start wondering where Ryan’s fellow CIA members are all hiding (we only see Costner and maybe three other agents in total), how he’s able to appear thoroughly adept and totally out of his element depending on what the scene requires, and how Costner’s character knows everything and is always in the right place at the right time (although watching him cover Ryan with a sniper rifle is one of the distinct pleasures of the film). But, until the final stretch, the film moves along well, and the immediacy of the film (which they no doubt found in the editing room) is one of the film’s greatest assets.
You know what else Branagh nailed with the movie? His own performance. As the villain, Branagh is having such a great time, both with how he visually creates the character and his tight-lipped performance, that every second with him onscreen becomes something more than “another one of these movies.” With a strong Russian accent, a delicious backstory involving the Mujahidin and a piece of shrapnel in his gut, and a penchant for womanizing and vodka (his character is dying of cirrhosis, a touch I liked), Branagh is playing the over-the-top, pulpy character HOMELAND or 24 wouldn’t dare portray. His character only belongs in the cinema, and he’s a better central villain than the ones in CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER or SUM OF ALL FEARS (Sean Bean’s vengeful IRA bomber in PATRIOT GAMES still has him beat). He has a big scene with Pine and Knightley that becomes a nice little chunk of suspense because, instead of him being played as a ignoramus madman with large appetites, we see the human being struggling to get out behind the nationalistic sociopath. I actually felt for this guy, which I never do in these movies; he seems more like a victim of circumstance than the kind of character I can’t wait see offed by the hero.
Costner is also really fun to watch here. I’ve kind of done a 180 on Costner over the course of my moviegoing experiences. At first, I blew him off as a self-important actor/director, who rose up on the back of his supporting casts (think THE UNTOUCHABLES, SILVERADO, FIELD OF DREAMS, even ROBIN HOOD), and started making his haughty, expensive projects into ego trips, but lacking the sufficient talent to back up said ego (that being said, I always liked WATERWORLD). Then, in his 40s, he started alternating between throwaway hogwash (THE POSTMAN, DRAGONFLY, MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE) and interesting, engaging performances (THIRTEEN DAYS, 3000 MILES TO GRACELAND, THE UPSIDE OF ANGER). Now that he’s in his 50s, he has this lived-in, mature element in his work that has made me into a legit Costner fan. I adore his restrained cuckoo performance as MR. BROOKS, he had a strong blue-collar presence in THE COMPANY MEN, his Pa Kent had a ton of emotional moments, and I totally dig him in mentor mode here. He seems completely in on the joke that he could’ve easily played the Ryan character himself, in his youth, and has a good, unforced mentor-pupil relationship with Pine. There’s a funny bit early on when Pine asks him who he is, and he mock-whispers, “I’m in the CIA,” like a dad telling his boy a secret unfit for mommy’s ears. Old Costner probably would’ve just said the line straight-forward. I like this guy a lot better. I’m genuinely excited to see him take his first leading man action role since OPEN RANGE (or, arguably, THE GUARDIAN) in Luc Besson and McG’s THREE DAYS TO KILL.
The fresh blood doesn’t have quite as much presence, but they do what they can. Pine shows that he has the ability to hold down his own franchise without Zachary Quinto or the Starfleet uniform backing him up, and that he may very well have a future as an action star. Without that annoying cockiness that J.J. likes to ladle onto Pine’s James T. Kirk, he’s able to convey a sense of intelligence and humanity that, in his best scenes, make him pretty fun to watch. Too bad the script can’t decide whether it wants Ryan to be in way over his head, or a Bourne-like secret badass who can take care of himself, but just needs to be reminded that his Marine training is the reason he keeps eluding capture and death. Branagh tries to elevate Ryan’s weaknesses, but by the end, when he’s jump-swinging a pipe into a car windshield or *SPOILER* duking it out with an assassin below the streets of New York *END SPOILER*, this guy’s just another unstoppable badass like Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer, or Quinn from HOMELAND. I know that stuff brings in the kiddies, but I like my Jack Ryan smart, nervous, and adverse to confrontation. Maybe it’s just me.
Poor Keira Knightley gets the worst of it though. While the character has enough of a role in the plot to justify hiring an actress of her caliber, she really has very little going on in the way of originality, strength, or intelligence. We are supposed to believe that she got a travel visa, flew to Moscow on a whim, and tracked down her CIA agent husband’s hotel room over the course of an afternoon/evening. Worse than that, when she finds Ryan’s gun nestled safely between the hotel Bible and room service menu, instead of figuring out what’s what, she’s dead convinced he’s having an affair. Where I come from, usually the spent condom equals affair, and the gun means he’s probably in the CIA. But, hell, what do I know. Maybe that’s how the kids are messing around these days.
For the most part, the action scenes are well-staged by Branagh, but by the time the action moves back to New York and leaves his character stewing offscreen in Moscow, the movie settles into a very familiar groove of “block off so-and-so “, “send x number of agents to y and z”, and “we only have however many minutes, Jack!” The financial goings-on that posed as the threat for the first two acts gets swiftly pushed aside for some good old fashioned, LETHAL WEAPON-style aquatic fisticuffs. And the bad guys left to fight are puny strongmen who lack the gravitas of Branagh’s doomed patriot. In a lot of ways, the movie reminds me of THE BOURNE LEGACY. That was also a film with a somewhat untested lead fulfilling his leading-man promise, a great villain, some truly excellent scenes (the office shooting with Rachel Weisz and its aftermath remain harrowing on repeat viewings), but a flimsy third act that sabotages the whole thing. While nothing here matches the greatest scenes of that movie (remember Oscar Isaac and Jeremy Renner in that cabin??), this one moves along faster and more efficiently, but the running around and punching at the end of both movies seems like forced fanservice. “We had our fun with the smart stuff, now here’s what you paid for.” Harry Palmer barely knew how to fight in THE IPCRESS FILE. Times have changed.
If you find yourself seeing JACK RYAN at some point, be it at the provocation of a loved one or fond memories of the previous four movies of the franchise, you won’t be miserable. The film doesn’t really get boring until the last 20 minutes, and it has more smarts and interesting beats than your average contemporary spy thriller. It’s the kind of movie where a young CIA recruit will challenge his superior over the agency’s unpopular rendition and waterboarding tactics, but will believe him when he’s assured that “that’s not (his) unit”. I like Costner in it, I really like Branagh’s Ruskie villain, and Pine shows that he’s no flash in the pan, and can very well make a future for himself as an action hero. But, in the end, it doesn’t bring enough new to the table, and fails to sufficiently satisfy as either a brainy tech-thiller or a kinetic spy beat-’em-up. You get why they ended up releasing this one in January; no way this was going to compete with the legit big guns of the holiday season.