Sunday, February 2, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – A Hero at Long Last

Directed by Kenneth Branagh, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is the fifth movie built around spy novelist Tom Clancy’s hero, the first with a plot invented entirely for the movies, and the first I enjoyed from start to finish. It’s never occurred to me to pick up one of Clancy’s books, because the movies culled from them are suffused with the kind of unremittingly gray techno-dreariness that makes my eyes glaze over. Sean Connery redeemed the first Clancy picture, The Hunt for Red October (1990), with a glittering performance as a Soviet sub commander who hatches a complicated scheme to defect; as the hero, a Soviet analyst turned CIA operative, Alec Baldwin made so little impression that when I sat down to write this review I found I couldn’t remember who first played Jack Ryan on screen. In Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), the role went to Harrison Ford, deep in his ulcerated, acting-is-misery period. (The movies that precede Patriot Games in Ford’s filmography are Presumed Innocent and Regarding Henry and the one that comes between his two Clancys is The Fugitive – a veritable dirge of performances.) Clear and Present Danger was easier viewing than Patriot Games, but the week I saw it I happened to be reading Ross Thomas’s 1984 thriller Missionary Stew, which covers some of the same territory, and as a piece of entertainment the Thomas novel is superior in every conceivable way. Then there was 2002’s The Sum of All Fears, a bloated (two hours four minutes) pretend commentary on post-9/11 America in which the director, Phil Alden Robinson, threw symbolic weight behind the images of destruction and potential destruction as well as slowing down the action to make sure we understood how important it was. The role of Ryan had now passed to Ben Affleck, who seemed absurdly lightweight both as an action hero – this was a decade before he earned the right to play one in his own terrific Argo – and as a Soviet expert.
What makes Ryan an appealing idea for a hero is that he’s an egghead with great physical instincts. Ford had made that combination work for Indiana Jones but as Ryan he was such an irredeemable sourpuss that you had to take both his braininess and his courage as givens, both of the plot and of the casting. On the other hand, the talented young Chris Pine, who plays Ryan in Shadow Recruit, is convincing both as a warrior and as a prodigious economics Ph.D. student (at the London School of Economics) who interrupts his doctoral work to fight in Afghanistan after the attack on the Twin Towers – and then returns to complete it on the insistence of his CIA recruiter, Tom Harper (Kevin Costner). As in The Sum of All Fears, the movie relocates the young Ryan to an updated setting, an idea that felt jarring in the Affleck movie but that the Daniel Craig Bond pictures have accustomed us to.

Chris Pine & Keira Knightley

Pine is so handsome in an uncomplicated way that it’s easy to underestimate him as an actor, but he brought some surprising colors to the role of Jim Kirk in the recent Star Trek pictures, and he makes Ryan’s leap from genius analyst to spy hero plausible by making the character’s mental processes under pressure not just dramatic but kinetic: a scene in which he has to figure out where a terrorist is about to strike downtown Manhattan is fueled by the mental adrenalin that keeps him in constant motion and seems to pulse behind his eyes. Plus there’s the physical workout that the screenwriters, first-timer Adam Kozad and veteran David Koepp, have cleverly slipped into the story line: early on in the film Jack is badly wounded in action and makes himself fit again, despite the pain of his recovery, by dint of sheer determination. He’s also got a cheerleader: Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), the doctor who agrees to go out with him if he works harder to overcome his war wounds. Three years later they’re living together but he’s leading a double life as a high-level brokerage-firm employee and a CIA Soviet analyst. The torment he endures at having to lie to the woman he loves – who intuits that he’s hiding something from her and has begun to suspect that it’s another woman – is the linchpin of the first half of Pine’s performance. Then Cathy, exasperated with his evasions, shows up in Moscow, where the CIA has sent him after he’s worked out that Russia is planning an attack on U.S. soil as a set-up for destabilizing the American economy. At that point Jack and Cathy become an improvised espionage team and the stakes rise even higher as the spy-thriller structure embraces a romantic-comedy component. (When Cathy confronts Jack in his hotel room and he confesses, “I’m in the CIA,” her reply – “Thank God!” – is pure romantic comedy.)
Kenneth Branagh as Cherevin
I’m guessing that Kozad wrote the original script and came up with the nifty plot set-up and Koepp was brought in to spiff it up. There couldn’t be a better choice: the tirelessly productive Koepp has probably worked on more movies I’ve enjoyed over the last two decades and more than any other screenwriter. (Here’s a partial list of his credits: Bad Influence, Toy Soldiers, Death Becomes Her, Carlito’s Way, The Paper, Mission: Impossible, Snake Eyes, Stir of Echoes, Panic Room, Spider-Man, and two he also directed, Ghost Town and Premium Rush.) But it’s Kenneth Branagh’s direction that makes Shadow Recruit the streamlined entertainment it is, with impeccably staged and shot action sequences – several of them real white-knuckle specials – encased in clear, luxuriously detailed, psychologically revealing narrative scenes. Ryan’s adversary, played by Branagh himself, is an alcoholic Russian ex-military officer named Viktor Cherevin with an unreconstituted Cold War mentality. (Cherevin is doing business with Jack’s firm; it’s when he discovers that some of the files he wants to audit are blocked that he begins to figure out what Cherevin is up to.) The movie’s centerpiece episode is a dinner that Cherevin invites Jack and Cathy to that showcases not only Jack’s talent at sussing out his enemy but Cathy’s as well. As a young filmmaker, Branagh made three of the finest Shakespeare adaptations ever released (Henry V, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing) and starred in all three, but you could only call his directing this Clancy picture slumming if you didn’t look at how beautifully he’s put it together, with the help of collaborators like photographer Haris Zambarloukos, editor Martin Walsh, production designer Andrew Laws and composer Patrick Doyle. This is one classy action thriller, with a cast that includes Colm Feore, David Paymer, and an uncredited Mikhail Baryshnikov as Russia’s Secretary of the Interior.

Keira Knightley

I don’t wish to oversell Shadow Recruit; thematically it’s lightweight – it lacks the layered subtext of a movie like Skyfall or the best of the Bourne series. But it’s very exciting, and in an era when good actors often get hamstrung or even buried by show-off directors who either ignore or simply don’t understand how to tap into their performance rhythms, it’s a treat to see Branagh maximize the contributions of his leading actors (including, of course, his own). Costner gives a wry, relaxed performance – Harper surfaces in Moscow as back-up when Ryan’s bodyguard turns out to be a hit man sent to eliminate him – and Knightley brings an emotional fullness to hers. She’s such a delectable camera subject that she’s almost always underrated, and when she’s saddled with a bad director she tends to go flat. But as my colleague Amanda Shubert pointed out in her review of Anna Karenina, under the right circumstances she can be thrilling to watch: her intellectual instincts and her emotional ones are in perfect sync, so you get the sense you’re watching her nervous system at work. That’s what happens when she works with Joe Wright; that’s what happened when David Cronenberg directed her in A Dangerous Method. And on a smaller scale that’s what happens here. She and Chris Pine must have recognized a kindred spirit in Branagh.
Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment