Jun 16, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

My wife is on nights at the hospital, so that means it is time for another round of “David Catches Up on Movies!” Last time, I watched some sci-fi films that I had managed to miss.  This time, I am just grabbing anything that piques my interest. Our first offering was the Kenneth Branagh directed spy-thriller, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.

I got hooked on Tom Clancy books when I was in Middle School. A friend of mine was reading them, so I asked my dad if I could borrow his books. That was an advantage of having a book-devouring father that never got rid of the books he finished. They would spill out of a bookcase in my parents’ room onto the floor. You can say a lot of things about my dad, but he was a voracious reader all the way until the end.

I started with Hunt for Red October. It really was my first “grown up” novel. I was fascinated by it. Tom Clancy was a master of the techno-thriller. And his protagonist, Jack Ryan, was the kind of guy a nerdy kid could get behind. He wasn’t a superhero or a muscle-bound behemoth. He was an analyst that got dragged into operations. He had a doctorate in economics and had a different way of seeing current events. When you combined that with Clancy’s bizarre ability to describe military hardware that “didn’t exist,” you had a great book. His next work, Red Storm Rising, is still one of my favorite books ever. It wasn’t part of the Jack Ryan timeline, was never made into a movie, and will never be made into a film. The subject material (Soviet Russia, mostly) and 1980s technology means that it is pretty irrelevant now. I still remember Clancy describing the Frisbees - stealth bombers that eerily matched the real US stealth bomber that no one knew about yet. The whole book gave me chills.

Clancy threw out a prequel next, Patriot Games. It was another big hit and a major literary star was born. The US Government got tired of fighting Clancy, since his information all came from public sources. So they started to buddy up to him. This gave him unprecedented access for a writer of books in this genre. He used this to his advantage in Clear and Present Danger and Cardinal in the Kremlin. But things started to unravel pretty soon. His book swelled in size. It almost seemed like he was drunk on his own military and technological knowledge. By the time The Sum of All Fears came out, the books were almost unreadable. I was hoping he was righting the ship with Without Remorse and Debt of Honor. But, for me, the unthinkable happened. I stopped reading Clancy’s novels. I have tried to get through Rainbow Six about five times. But I just can’t. I recently read Red Rabbit, the prequel Clancy wrote about Jack Ryan’s early CIA days. But it was pretty bad and - shockingly - boring. How many times do we need to be reminded that Ryan’s “just an analyst” or “a tough former Marine?” How many characters needed to reference the fact that Ryan had broken his back in a helicopter accident and still completed his training?

There is a problem when you create a protaganist in a long-term series. You either have to forever freeze him/her in time (James Bond) or you have to address the fact that time moves on. Jack Ryan was just an analyst in the early books. But he was promoted, like most qualified people would be. Supervisors died or retired or were forced out. He moved up to Deputy Director of Intelligence, Director of Intelligence, Director of the NSA, Vice President, and then President of the USA. The President doesn’t go on ops. So what do you do? You start to build the books around other characters that had been introduced — James Clark (a black bag specialist), Ding Chavez (former Marine), even Jack Ryan Jr. Or you have to keep dipping into the prequel pool. That leads to the continuity issue - too many time fishing in that pond can start to goof up events that happened in earlier books.

Wait, I think we’re supposed to be talking about the movie. OH yeah. The Jack Ryan films have been hit and miss. Hunt for Red October was stellar. Alec Baldwin was perfect as Ryan. He was how I pictured the character as I read. Actually, he still is the way I picture him. When Harrison Ford took over, the films slipped. Ford is supposed to be playing “just an analyst?” He’s as old as the President in the films. That’s not admirable, it is sad. Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger were entertaining films. But things really went off the rails with the next reboot, The Sum of All Fears. There already was a built in problem - the book sucked. It was bloated and stupid. A completely new cast stepped in, with Ben Affleck playing a younger Jack Ryan. I hated the movie. So did most people. It seemed like Hollywood was content moving on from Jack Ryan. Tom Clancy’s other works - like Rainbow Six - had turned into a video game cash cow. Plus the spy thriller had moved on from the techno-thriller to the Jason Bourne spy movies. Technology moved too fast to impress people in a movie. It was now about being brainy and brawny.

I was a bit surprised when I saw that Hollywood was dipping back into the Tom Clancy reservoir. Twelve years had passed since The Sum of All Fears! Was there really that big of a crowd beating down the doors for a Clancy movie?  Instead of taking a standing book, though, they just co-opted the Jack Ryan character and wrote an original story. There were some impressive people attached. Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Chris Pine, Kenneth Branagh. And Branagh was directing. I have been a big Branagh fan since he burst on the scene in Henry V. As a director, I thought he did a fantastic job on Thor. I am not completely sold on Chris Pine as a movie star. He is good in some stuff (Unstoppable, Star Trek), but he also can be very one note (This Means War). The whole concept sounded interesting. My wife and I planned on going to see it, but having three kids means that all movie plans are tenuous at best. So that meant the movie was a perfect option for a Redbox viewing.

Admittedly, I was interrupted several times during my movie-going experience.  My daughter for some reason kept coming downstairs - usually during a particularly violent scene that sent me scrambling for the pause button.  I flipped over to watch the end of the San Antonio Spurs/Miami Heat scrimmage.  And one of our dogs kept climbing on me.  However, I still feel I got a pretty good feel for the movie.

We are in major reboot, prequel territory.  Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is first seen as a student in England during the 9/11 attacks.  He dropped out of school and enlisted in the Marines.  During his tour, his helicopter was shot down, breaking his back. (This apparently is the equivalent to Bruce Wayne's parents being killed in the Batman series.  You can mess around with a lot of things in that series, but not Bruce's parents getting whacked.  Or Jack Ryan breaking his back.)  During rehab he meets two important people - his future wife, Cathy Mueller (Keira Knightley), and his CIA recruiter, Something Idontcare (Kevin Costner).  Cathy is finishing up her medical school training and has just a few hours in her personal training rotation left before she is off to become a brilliant eye surgeon.  Costner has Ryan go back to school to finish his doctorate in economics to better establish his cover on Wall Street.  When we next see everyone, Ryan is an analyst examining mysterious accounts between Russian and American companies; Cathy is a ophthalmology resident; and Costner is not around.  We meet Kenneth Branagh's Russian bad guy as he is told by some mysterious government type played by Mikhail Baryshnikov that he is cleared to start whatever sneaky pete thing he is up to.  So, here is where I start to have my recap overrun by my gripes.

  1. Having been through the med school process with my wife, I don't buy the whole timeline with Jack's wife.  A PT rotation in fourth year?  Doubtful.  Scampering off to an Ophtho residency?  NOT how it works, pal.  Ophtho residents have to complete a year of internal medicine residency first.  In addition, the match process for Ophtho is EXTREMELY difficult.  We have a great friend from med school who went through that gauntlet and it was horrific.  From other Clancy books, we know Cathy is beyond brilliant as a surgeon.  But the whole thing just plays into a very generic "doctor making" timeline.
  2. Movie Marketing can destroy a movie.  I remember when Jim Carrey's movie The Cable Guy came out.  Everyone was expecting another slapstick, crazy Carrey-esque movie.  What they got was a dark comedy.  Very dark.  It was funny, but in a twisted and disturbing way.  The movie bombed.  Similarly, the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Last Action Hero was marketed as another muscle-bound Arnie flick.  But it was actually a vicious satire of the entire action genre.  Go watch it sometime.  It is actually very good, if you understand WHAT it is.  Jack Ryan fell into the marketing trap.  Everything played up the paranoia angle.  Who do you trust?  Can he trust Kevin Costner's recruiter CIA man?  Can he trust his own wife?!?  Take a gander at that picture I included.  What's the tagline?  "Trust no one!" This is serious spy stuff, mister.  Espionage! Paranoia! Betrayal!  Trust no one.  Hey, guess how many double crosses there were in the movie?  NONE! Guess how many times I was worried there was going to be a double cross?  NONE!  I used to get more tense in an episode of Burn Notice or Chuck.  Don't make it seem like an espionage thriller when it isn't.
  3. You have Kenneth Branagh in this movie.  He is the current generation's best Shakespearean actor.  That means he is, by nature, a scenery chewer.  That is his job.  Now, I'm not saying I wanted him doing a Russian version of his Loveless character from Wild Wild West.  But, you're playing a Russian villain!  One of his biggest character traits was that he was quiet.  What?!? The ridiculous thing is that Branagh directed the movie, so he is the one to blame for this.  He doesn't even know how to utilize himself?  Maybe that was why Knightley and Costner could have just been played by any other actors without much of a glitch  Actually, getting right down to it, there were quite a few good actors whose skills were poorly tapped.  
  4. I still am not entirely clear what was going on in the movie.  There was some kind of plot where this Russian guy would bring down the US dollar.  He had these moves that were supposed to coincide with a terrorist attack or something.  But I really don't know what any of it had to do with anything.  It was a poorly constructed plan, to say the very least.  
  5. Jack Ryan is supposed to just be an analyst.  But he also apparently had intensive hand-to-hand combat training where he can fight off a MUCH larger enemy in a tight space (bathroom) and drown him in three inches of water.  Mmmm hmmm.  He also can stare at screens in a room and unravel an entire intricate hidden Russian economic terrorist plot, but can't remember the correct protocol words for an extraction.  Ok.  And he can't remember to throw away an incriminating movie ticket stub....
  6. What the heck is a Shadow Recruit anyway?  
I think that this movie was an effort to bring the Jack Ryan character into the Jason Bourne world.  But it didn't work.  I don't know if it was that Chris Pine is no Matt Damon, that the action scenes were harried but ineffective, or that the intrigue just wasn't there.  I was baffled at how little these big movie stars had to do.  I remember watching Kevin Costner in No Way Out and being glued to my screen.  There were so many twists and turns and secrets.  THAT is a spy movie.  This was just a poor attempt to capitalize on a once great character's name.  So, unless Paramount is planning on finally making the Without Remorse movie that should have been made, my advice is to leave Tom Clancy's library alone.

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