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Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 12:01 am

Reluctant spy refreshing in Recruit

Chris Pine as Jack Ryan in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Right, Keira Knightley and Kenneth Branagh.
PHOTOS COURTESY PARAMOUNT PICTURES

 

Paramount Pictures is eager to relaunch its Jack Ryan franchise – which has been dormant since 2002’s The Sum of All Fears – and they’ve gone about it in a curious way. Instead of portraying their spy as a slick agent who was born to the job and hits the ground running, Ryan is portrayed as a reluctant mole who ends up in over his head from the very start, learning the art of espionage as he goes, luck playing a greater factor toward his survival than any sort of hand-to-hand combat skills he may have.

While some may object to portraying Ryan as a bit of a bumbler, I think it’s a refreshing approach, in the vein of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Just as Bruce Wayne wasn’t born with a superhero’s skill set, picking up survival skills as he gets beaten and bruised along the way, so too does Ryan in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, an intriguing and suspenseful reboot to the series that, with a solid cast and intelligent script, proves to be an auspicious start to what Paramount hopes will be a new series of films. All the elements are here but whether a new generation embraces the character – it’s been 24 years since The Hunt for Red October – is another matter.

During the movie’s extended prologue we meet Ryan, first as a young man studying economics abroad in England who changes his career track after the attacks of 9/11. Enlisting in the armed forces, he quickly rises through the ranks and finds himself leading a mission into Afghanistan that goes horribly wrong, with him clinging to life before ending up in physical rehab in the States. Not only does Ryan catch the eye of his therapist Cathy (Keira Knightley) but also of CIA agent Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who sees untapped potential in the young man. After some resistance, Ryan agrees to join the agency and is then placed with a Wall Street financial firm where he is suppose to monitor international currencies and report anything suspicious. Seemingly, nothing of note happens for 10 years until Ryan notices that a Soviet firm that does business with various United States’ companies is hiding vast amounts of currency in accounts he cannot access. In digging further, he discovers that businessman Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) is behind these dealings and is intent on destroying the United States’ economy by orchestrating a terrorist attack and then selling off trillions in U.S. securities.

While this is not the sort of plan for world domination that’s part and parcel of the James Bond films, the smaller scale of this plot lends credibility to this movie that others of the genre lack. To be sure, moving and hiding currencies on the internet doesn’t sound all that exciting but as scripted by Adam Cozad and David Koepp, what emerges is an ever-evolving game of cat and mouse, the stakes of which increase as the film progresses. The film’s centerpiece is a break-in where Ryan must infiltrate Cherevin’s supposedly impenetrable office, while Cathy distracts him over dinner. Editor Martin Walsh wrings every last bit of tension that he can out of the sequence, crosscutting between Ryan’s efforts and Cherevin’s ultimate discovery that he’s been duped to maximum effect; one close call quickly falls on the heels of another and the result is a genuinely thrilling set piece. If this, along with the film’s climax which takes place on and under the streets of New York City, are any indication of the sort of thrills future Ryan films hold, then this could end up being a worthwhile franchise.

However, that’s not to say that the movie is without its faults, which happen to be so glaring they threaten to undercut the entire enterprise. Branagh, who also directed the feature, proves once more that he has no eye when it comes to staging fights in close quarters. Every moment involving hand-to-hand combat is a muddle of bad camera angles, awkward movements and sloppy cutting that result in a jumble of images more likely to induce seizures than thrills. Equally troubling is Branagh’s performance. His Cherevin is composed of one worn-out malicious mannerism after another, as he does nothing but sneer and tersely spit out his dialogue throughout, quick with a witty retort. The only two notes Branagh misses are to twirl his moustache and pet a white cat in a menacing manner.

Some of the fault lies in Cozad and Koepp’s lap. We don’t get nearly enough background on Cherevin to allow Branagh to give us a fully realized character while the relationship between Ryan and Cathy leaves far too much to our imagination. (Why have they been engaged for 10 years exactly?) Still the rest of the cast do admirable jobs with Pine effectively human amidst the high-tech espionage, Knightley finding a bit more to do than just being a damsel in distress and Costner is quite good as the capable veteran who’s yet to be undone by weariness or cynicism. All in all, Shadow Recruit proves to be a worthy reboot but like its main character, it and the perspective series still have a few kinks to work out.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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