Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit — Engaging spy hijinks

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for action violence and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

This is the most fun I’ve had with a spy thriller since 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy ... and possibly since 1975’s Three Days of the Condor.

Jack Ryan (Chris Pine, left) doesn't miss much, so he's not surprised when Thomas
Harper (Kevin Costner), having monitored the younger man's hospital convalescence,
formally introduces himself and makes a tantalizing offer: Would Ryan like to join the
CIA? Needless to say, there'd be no movie if Ryan declined...
Actually, the Condor comparison may be more apt, since this re-boot of Tom Clancy’s intrepid CIA analyst — played in previous films by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck — places a greater emphasis on Ryan’s analytical skills, while making him a reluctant secret agent. The resulting action dynamic evokes fond memories of Robert Redford’s similarly desperate efforts, in Condor, to make the most of a set of circumstances far outside his comfort zone.

Not that star Chris Pine’s fresh take on Jack Ryan is wholly inexperienced when it comes to field work, as was the case with Redford’s character. As seems obligatory these days, with “rookie” covert operatives, this re-imagined Ryan is a former Marine with plenty of hoo-rah grit and hand-to-hand combat skills, in addition to his university book-learnin’.

Indeed, we’re introduced to a college-age Ryan attending classes at the London School of Economics, on the fateful day when terrorists take out New York’s Twin Towers. Galvanized into serving his country, Ryan becomes a Marine and nearly loses his life. Convalescence and subsequent physical therapy bring two people into his orbit: flirty, kind-hearted med student Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), and stoic man of mystery Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner).

The former, we can be sure, will become this story’s obligatory love interest; the latter, armed with Costner’s devilish smile, is the CIA recruiter who brings Ryan into the fold. But not, Harper insists, until the younger man returns to school and obtains his degree. The CIA wants Ryan to be Wall Street-savvy, the better to ferret out nasty back-room dealings that might endanger the U.S. economy.

Flash-forward to the present day, with Ryan comfortably ensconced at a high-profile Wall Street firm where nobody knows of his actual career. “Nobody” includes Cathy, now a main squeeze of many years’ standing, who has become a pediatric eye surgeon. Thus far, Cathy hasn’t had any reason to wonder about her lover’s candor — Ryan has taken the CIA secrecy pledge very seriously — but, naturally, that’s about to change.

I’m not sure that plot contrivance works in this day and age; it seems highly unlikely that Ryan could have concealed his shadowy activities for so long. People who live together generally know each other’s movements better than that, and the resulting “trouble” caused by this secret seems a mite silly ... even when Pine does his best to sell the notion with his unabashed charm and Boy Scout enthusiasm.

But it’s not a major problem, and the subterfuge does prompt several cute exchanges between Pine and Knightley, both of whom deliver plenty of captivating star wattage.

Actually, I’m impressed by several bits of dialogue and sidebar details in this original screenplay from newcomer Adam Cozad and longtime scripting veteran David Koepp (the latter well-versed with taut thrillers such as Panic Room and Premium Rush). Cozad and Koepp are quite clever about obeying Anton Chekhov’s principle of good drama: that if a rifle is seen hanging on the wall in chapter one, it absolutely must go off in a subsequent chapter.

Several little touches seem inconsequential here, at first blush, but later take on greater meaning. I greatly respect canny writing of that nature.

I also enjoy a good villain, and director Kenneth Branagh has given himself the juicy role of Victor Cherevin, a powerful Russian banker and deeply devoted nationalist who takes a dim view of U.S. economic interests that threaten Mother Russia. With unofficial backing from his government, Cherevin activates an insidious plot that could plunge the United States into another Great Depression ... triggered by a terrorist act committed by a long-dormant sleeper agent.

We’ve not seen Russia painted with such adversarial colors for quite some time — today’s Islamic radicals and North Koreans being such handier villains — and, as a result, this plot detail is a bit startling. Branagh’s Cherevin is a grim, Machiavellian baddie who hearkens back to the Cold War era of countless spy films and books by the likes of John Le Carre and Len Deighton.

Cherevin is a tightly wound partisan who has little patience for decadent Americans, and his immediate contempt for Ryan — when they eventually meet — is punctuated by the Shakespearean dialogue flourishes that Branagh delivers and directs equally well. Indeed, their initial exchange, with Ryan supposedly present to examine some of the financial dealings that link his Wall Street firm to Cherevin, is a delicious exchange of thinly veiled sarcasm on both sides. Branagh and Pine play it well.

You can’t help but grin, even as Branagh allows his character the faintest ghost of a contemptuous half-smile. (Blink, and you’ll miss it.) The contrast between these two men is well played: Cherevin coldly polite and terrifyingly charming, Ryan impulsively brash and apparently oblivious to his rival’s frosty ruthlessness.

This engaging character dynamic aside, the unfolding narrative also gets considerable juice from Cherevin's plot, which — as concocted by Cozad and Koepp — feels disturbingly probable. In an era littered with hacked consumer bank accounts, not to mention the horrific implications of Wall Street nanosecond trading, it’s not at all hard to believe that this sort of economic havoc could be executed in the blink of an eye.

Pine’s rapidly rising star status is bolstered further by his likable performance here as an academic turned reluctant action hero. Ryan’s first exposure to unexpected violence, once in Russia, is a corker of a scene: tautly edited by Martin Walsh and choreographed by stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong, and strongly reminiscent of the vicious washroom fracas that earns the re-booted James Bond his 007 designation, in 2006’s Casino Royale.

It’s obviously no accident, as well, that cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ lens set-ups and tracking style evoke the photojournalistic grit of 1960s and ’70s spy thrillers.

Pine works his almost luminescent blue eyes to maximum effect when exchanging come-hither dialogue with Knightley, and it’s nice to see her in a contemporary, real-world role that lacks the emotionally damaged angst present in so many of the characters she plays. (Never Let Me Go, A Dangerous Method and Anna Karenina come to mind.) Cathy Muller is smart, capable and resourceful; she also is a woman in love, which adds just enough vulnerable shading to Knightley’s sparkling presence.

They’re both overshadowed by Branagh, but that’s no surprise; the British stage and screen veteran can dominate a room merely by standing still ... because he’s never still, even when he seems to be. Buckets of emotional complexity forever stir behind his eyes, and in his mannered expressions, and the set of his limbs. In every respect, Cherevin is a villain we admire, even as we loathe and fear him ... and why not? He’s just as much a patriot as Ryan.

Costner capably handles his role as mentor and undercover veteran, his laid-back self-assurance a deliberate contrast to Ryan’s early-stage uncertainty. Granted, Costner’s “laid-back” delivery pretty much defines his rather narrow acting range, but this comfortable role certainly plays to his strengths.

Ryan’s second-act invasion of Cherevin's office headquarters is a deftly constructed model of suspense: a classic set-up that requires our hero to accomplish the impossible in a very short period of time, without being spotted. Less successful, however, is a subsequent car chase through Moscow’s streets, which builds to a rather silly climax that transforms Ryan into something just shy of a super hero.

By this point, though, the film has built up so much good will, that you’ll likely forgive the lapse.

I almost must point out, however, that this film’s title is terrible.

One wonders what the late Clancy would have made of this, since it has nothing to do with any of his nine Jack Ryan novels (not to mention the eight “subsidiary” books, some of which Clancy co-wrote with Other Hands, and which include Ryan as a supporting character). That’s typical of Hollywood’s current fascination with franchise re-boots, and quite similar to the way both Bond and Jason Bourne have moved beyond their original literary identities. If Pine is fortunate enough to luck into an ongoing role as Ryan, though, future filmmakers will need to focus more on his intellectual smarts, in order to distinguish him from his covert ops cousins.

Meanwhile, you’ll have a great time with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. January usually is a dumping ground for productions that couldn’t make the cut during the previous summer or holiday season; this one’s a welcome change of pace.

No comments:

Post a Comment