The first origin of Jack Ryan is the stuff of literary legend and personal nostalgia. Tom Clancy published The Hunt for Red October (for which he was reportedly paid $5,000) at the Naval Institute Press. No major publisher wanted the novel since it was assumed there would be no wide interest in a military potboiler with so many technical details that even the navy’s press asked the author to cut a hundred pages.
That was in the year 1984, and I was a senior in high school, trying to sneak a page or two of reading in before the bell rang and I had to put down Clancy and take up Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson. Later, when I was an undergraduate, my English professor made the class select one book published in the previous five years to include in our American Novel reading. I lobbied hard for Red October, but the class (of mostly women) picked Ann Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist instead. Who wanted to read half a thousand pages about sonar pings at the end of a long academic semester?
A decade after that, Clancy’s Without Remorse was one of the last Christmas gifts I gave to my wife’s uncle, who had been part of a bomber plane unit in World War II. An appreciation for Clancy’s yarns helped me, a budding liberal, bond with my more politically and socially conservative in-laws, even if my great aunt tsked disapprovingly at the number of “bad words” she found on any given page. No matter, these were books for and about men…always more verbose when describing their toys than their feelings.
The point of this trip down memory lane? Jack Ryan was not born to be an action hero, even if he had a healthy respect for them. Even in the midst of the Clinton ‘90s, when the novels’ settings shifted from actual history to America’s imagined future and Ryan became the Commander and Chief and conservative readers desperately wanted to replace the one they had in real life, our hero gave rather enacted executive orders. A decade and a half before 9/11, Ryan morphed from analyst to hawkish political sugar daddy, giving those who fought America’s enemies a mandate and the necessary funding to unleash righteous anger. Clancy loved his supersoldiers to be sure, but Ryan was never, until today, one of them.
Hollywood mostly, which has long had little room for heroes or stories that are the slightest bit different from the heroes and stories it gave us the week before. It’s not that Jack Ryan is so beloved a character that reimagining him feels sacrilegious. Neither, truthfully, is it the case that the character we get in this reimagining is the complete antithesis of his literary namesake. Branagh’s Jack Ryan is not Nolan’s Batman or Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. It’s just that “reimagining” feels and sounds like too generous a word for a film this generic. I’m tempted to call Jack Ryan a lite version of Jason Bourne, but that’s probably not fair to Matt Damon and Tony Gilroy who invested Bourne, however rote the webs of intrigue he found himself caught up in, with a melancholy human side that at least distinguished him from the Ethan Hunts and James Bonds of the cinematic world.
David Koepp, who shares screenplay credit with Adam Cozad, also has writing credits for Mission: Impossible, Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Panic Room, Spider-Man, War of the Worlds, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Those are some wildly successful and well plotted movies, but they aren’t exactly character driven. More important as it relates to Jack Ryan, the ones that revolve around established characters do little to flesh them out. The Koepp formula is to get objects in motion and let Newton’s first law take over from there. I have no doubt that with little more than MS-Word’s “search and replace” function, this easily could have been the story for Bourne 5 or another Mission: Impossible film.
I haven’t said much about the story because there’s not much to say. The Russians want to send America into the second great depression by combining insider trading with a well-placed car bomb. Why? No reason exactly, other than international jealousy and the fact that being a Bond villain may be the only thing Branagh could think of to make the six people in America who didn’t watch Thor forget he is the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation. When Ryan notices a pattern of suspicious financial accounts, he goes off to Moscow to investigate.
That’s the set-up, but the picture proper could take place anywhere. Ryan’s fiancée, finding out that her boyfriend is a spy, says what any self-respecting American woman would: doesn’t she get to play too? So there’s flirting at a restaurant, needlessly complicated stealing of keys and codes, downloading of computer files as handlers whisper into earpieces that the hero needs to leave now, and, of course, a digital display on a bomb’s detonator that ticks down as the hero fights a madman with his finger on the button.
Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukas (who also worked on Thor and Branagh’s remake of Sleuth) even use a generic visual palette. Chrome and black with lots of glass for the banking district, rain to reflect the teal lights at night, and an amber hue for domestic interiors.
The director does seem to attract great casts, though. Kevin Costner brings just a touch of playfulness to his role as Ryan’s mentor. He never quite winks at the audience, but neither does he demand that we take him or the film seriously.
Keira Knightley’s rendition of Cathy Muller (soon to by Ryan) is more akin to Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies than Anne Archer from Patriot Games or Clear and Present Danger. It would probably no longer be politically correct to simply have Cathy be the soldier’s reason for fighting and reward for coming home. They also serve who recklessly endanger themselves and others in order to interject an element of uncertainty into an operation dependent on training and precision. Knightley is one of the most consistently interesting actresses working today, and she is coming off a string of movies—A Dangerous Method, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Anna Karenina, and Can a Song Save Your Life? (recently retitled Begin Again)—that underscore her dramatic and comedic range. But Cathy’s a prop, not a character, and we’re never quite convinced she is as jealous of Jack as the script says she is.
Unfortunately all the star wattage in the supporting roles only serves to illuminate how flat and mundane the protagonist is. It’s not entirely Chris Pine’s fault. Genre pictures these days are much more interested in villains anyway. They get origins; heroes get back stories. Here’s Ryan’s: he saw 9/11 on television and signed up to do some good. He requested the most dangerous combat missions and only became an analyst when he was injured in the line of duty. He had only three weeks on “the farm” to train, but when the bullets start flying he takes to Mortal Kombat like Mozart to a piano.
Ryan’s reincarnation as a savant is the most puzzling and depressing of all the deviations from the character’s literary roots. Clancy believed in and depicted unapologetically the superiority of American soldiers and the way of life they fought to preserve and protect. But that superiority came from a dedication to training and years of experience guided by an innate moral compass. The new Ryan is the sort of guy who can be in dropped into a roomful of trained professionals and see the small detail that everyone else missed. Unable to make him look intrinsically smart, the screenplay settles for making everyone else dumb so he will look good by comparison. Worse, his stubborn idealism, the defining trait of the Ryan character, is similarly depicted only in comparison to the dulled moral sensibilities of everyone else. At one point early in Shadow Recruit, Ryan’s Wall Street boss, unaware that he is a government agent, cautions Ryan not to look too deeply into the finances of their business’ Russian partners since it is the lack of laws in the former Soviet Union that allows the company to profit. Ryan mumbles something when he is recruited about the CIA not being too popular these days because of waterboarding and all that, but he quickly learns that if you put your life on the line, it is okay to dismiss the concerns of those who would just as soon exploit a tragedy for profit as see it stopped.
In its way, Shadow Recruit is as cynical about the financial sector as Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, as pessimistic about the potential for civilians to survive without superheroes as Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Early Jack Ryan novels, especially Patriot Games, were about the importance of stepping up when one found oneself in the wrong place at the right time. The new Jack Ryan doesn’t so much have greatness thrust upon him as shoved down his—and our—throat.
An earlier version of this review appeared at Christianity Today Movies & TV. All rights reserved.