Monday, January 20, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) – Review

Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is generic yes, but still an entertaining and thrilling origin story. The film is about Jack Ryan, a man studying at Oxford who decides to leave school to join the Marines after the events of September 11, 2001. However, while in combat in Afghanistan, a helicopter he is traveling in is shot down severely injuring him, ending his military career. Now looking for a new way to serve, Ryan is approached by the CIA to join their financial crimes unit (being that he was working on his PhD in Economics before leaving school). Ryan accepts their offer and moves to New York to work on Wall Street (after finishing his PhD program). Meanwhile, Ryan courts Cathy Muller, a resident that he met while recovering from his injuries suffered in Afghanistan. Ten years later, Ryan and Muller are living together in New York and he is working in a trading firm, monitoring their trades for suspicious activity. He comes across something odd and the CIA sends him to Russia to investigate. Ryan thinks that the trades he is seeing could lead to the economic meltdown of the US economy coupled with a terrorist attack. But first he must uncover the plot.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is an adequate film in most every regard. It does what it sets out to do – i.e. it is a good origin story for Jack Ryan that will hopefully set up further adventures. Director Kenneth Branagh does a good job managing the characters, keeping the story and action moving forward, and creating exciting action beats.

That said, the biggest weakness of the film is that it is very generic. It is more or less a Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, James Bond type modern action thriller that audiences have seen many times and in some cases done better. Conceptually there is nothing new about this film or this type of character on a general level, and the action too is very typical. It is also a wonder that the film is based on an original story only using Tom Clancy’s characters rather than on one of the many Clancy stories that could have been slightly amended to be an origin story. Why ignore his vast array of great stories that are proven? The story in Shadow Recruit is not bad by any means; it is just typical and unsurprising. And thus, much of the story and the action (all being nothing new) sort of play in the background to what is actually the best part of the film: the characters themselves, specifically the villain Viktor Cherevin and Cathy Muller (who has an expanded role compared to other Jack Ryan films).

Branagh has always been a director who does his best work with actors, with the other aspects of filmmaking being more ordinary (that is to say, he is not a great director but an adequate one who generally gets good performances). The best part of this film is the performances – the dialogue scenes between characters are much more interesting than any of the bigger action beats. Though, to his credit, Branagh does keep all the action engaging and exciting. Personally, my favorite scene in the film came when Jack and Cathy meet Viktor for dinner. They put on a rouse to distract him while Jack breaks into his office to steal some documents, leaving Cathy to entertain/distract Viktor. The interplay between Cathy and Viktor is a lot of fun, and there is a nice bit of tension as the whole thing could be discovered at any moment. It feels like a classic spy-film scene.

Another thing that Branagh does to keep the film engaging is that he paces the film to move briskly. The film’s first act sprints through the events of Jack’s early life that shape who he is and why he ultimately ends up with the CIA. To some extent, the film probably could have been drawn out another 30-45 minutes for more development, which could have provided more character depth and narrative detail (and given it more of a classic spy-movie feel). But, at some stage the decision was made for this film to be more of a Hollywood style action thriller that relies on economic storytelling, quick pacing, and lots of action beats (Shadow Recruit is the shortest of all five Jack Ryan films), which is fine but it just leaves it feeling similar to many other action thriller franchises audiences have seen in the last few years. It does not bring anything new or different to the table, or really even try.

Jack Ryan has always been a character in film who finds himself pulled into action scenarios (even though he is constantly complaining that he is just an analyst). With Shadow Recruit, he is made an operative at one point, and the audience is shown (briefly) that he has a background as a Marine (rescuing two soldiers from the helicopter crash while having a broken back). Thus, his role as a man of action is not as surprising (as say Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan who is a wrecking ball) – plus, this is what modern action film have become. Average movie fans do not want to see a man who stops terrorist plots from a desk (similar to a film like Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy); they want their star in the middle of all the action creating almost a mandate for what Hollywood franchise action thrillers should be.

 And so, on a brief side note, here is my ranking of all the Jack Ryan films (for those who are interested): 1) The Hunt for Red October (probably the most true to the idea of the character, but Ryan is really not the lead in the film), 2) Patriot Games, 3) Clear and Present Danger, 4) Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and 5) The Sum of All Fears.

 All in all, Shadow Recruit works fine as the first chapter of the Jack Ryan reboot, and it does its job (as I would be interested in seeing future adventures with these characters and actors – but that all depends on international box office now, as this underperformed domestically opening weekend). And I suspect that fans of the genre, especially those who like it with a bit of action, will enjoy the film as it is both thrilling and entertaining, and best of all features good characters/performances.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Kenneth Branagh is best known for his work directing and starring in his adaptations of William Shakespeare’s work. In particular, his versions of Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet are great (and are to this date still his best films). But then he directed Thor for Marvel, and has since been expanding his scope as a filmmaker. As said in the review, the best moments of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit come in the scenes between characters, and that speaks to what kind of director Branagh is, but he does a good enough job with the action too. I am interested to see what he does with his next film Cinderella.

Patrick Doyle gives the film a great action thriller score that sounds like it tends towards the techno-thriller side, which in many ways is very fitting. The film does spend a lot of time with Ryan looking at financial transactions and code, and his big scene in which he breaks into Viktor’s office feels like something right out of a techno-thriller. Doyle’s music sets the tone and adds an additional level of excitement and tension. Haris Zambarloukos’s cinematography is good as well, but overall fairly standard for this type of Hollywood film. However, Andrew Laws does a wonderful job with his production design, especially with the sets in Russia. They are artistically compelling.

The performances in the film are strong across the board. Colm Feore and Nonso Anozie are good in small supporting roles. Kevin Costner plays Jack Ryan’s mentor Thomas Harper with his usual blending of a man who is both fatherly and tough (in a morally patriotic type of way). The scenes between Ryan and Harper are some of the better ones in the film, and it is really too bad that there could not have been more character development between them. Kenneth Branagh plays Viktor Cherevin, the film’s villain. In some ways he is just another in a long line of generic Euro-villains with some ambitious plot to bring America down. But, Branagh brings a lot more to the character with his performance. There is a real humanity and depth to this man, more than just pure cliché. The same can be said of Keira Knightley’s performances as Cathy Muller. She adds a lot more to the film than just merely being a girlfriend character or a damsel in distress (though she does serve those purposes too). She has a lot fight in her (and may even be a better and more willing spy than Jack Ryan). Knightley just seems to bring an added layer (much like Branagh) to the role; her Cathy feels like a fully realized person. And in some ways, the depth of these supporting characters makes this reiteration of the franchise seemingly have more potential than past Jack Ryan films that seemed to rest solely on the strength of their lead. Chris Pine is good as Jack Ryan. He does his action-man thing, and it works. But, he also sculpts it a little to fit the character too. His best work comes playing off Branagh, Knightley, and Costner.

Summary & score: While Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit adds nothing new to the action thriller genre, it is still yet another good film joining many other good and great films that the genre has produced in recent memory. 6/10

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