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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

I am a huge fan, over-all, of the Jack Ryan film series and I believe this is a character, and a series, that still has quite a lot of gas in its tank.  What a disappointment, then, to watch the latest installment, the rebooted Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and discover a total waste of this franchise’s great potential.

I am a huge, huge fan of The Hunt for Red October.  It’s one of my very favorite films of all-time, a smart, fun thiller with a large scale and grand stakes, and a story that is filled to the brim with wonderfully drawn characters.  I love to imagine what a series of films spun out of Red October would have looked like had Alec Baldwin remained in the role.  Instead, he left the series after that initial installment, and was replaced by Harrison Ford for Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger.  I really like both of those films, though neither achieves the greatness of Red October, and there’s no question that the flavor of the series changed with Harrison Ford as the lead rather than Alec Baldwin.

They painted themselves into something of a narrative corner with the end of Clear and Present Danger, though I certainly think that a smart screenwriter could have found ways to continue telling new Jack Ryan adventures.  Unfortunately, the series seemed to flounder after that third installment, with the producers eventually deciding to reboot with from the ground up, re-casting Ryan with the young Ben Affleck and re-starting the story from zero.  I sort of liked the film that resulted, 2002’s The Sum of All Fears, and while I think it was the weakest of the four Ryan films at that point, it could have been the start of an entertaining new series of films.  Unfortunately those follow-up films never materialized, and the series has been dormant for over a decade.

With Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the studio decided to once again reboot and re-start from the beginning.  Obviously at this point, more than a decade after The Sum of All Fears, recasting the role made perfect sense, and I was excited when I heard that Chris Pine (pretty great as the young Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek films) had landed the role of Ryan.  But I am mystified by Hollywood’s insistance, every time they re-cast a film series these days, on starting over with a new origin story.  Every time they re-cast James Bond, they didn’t re-tell his origin, did they?  No, they just carried on and told a fun new Bond adventure!  (Though, of course, the most recent time they re-cast the role of Bond, they DID start over and re-tell his origin — a decision that worked wonderfully and so I will acknowledge is a strong exception to what I’m saying.)  But, for example, when they rebooted the Spider-Man film series I think re-telling Spidey’s origin was a mistake — I would have preferred to have just gotten another great Spider-Man adventure.

Same goes for Ryan, and unfortunately Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit really bungles its re-telling of Ryan’s origin.  Let’s take as an example the issue of the combat injury in Ryan’s past, which is what wound up sidelining this tough guy to a desk job as an analyst.  In The Hunt for Red October, I love the subtle way they refer to his injury in the first half of the film, gradually building up to one of the best scenes in the movie: when the admiral played by Fred Thompson explains what happened to Jack, then insists to his fellow officer, who had been giving Ryan a hard time, “so why don’t you cut the guy a little slack?”  It’s a great, great scene.  Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, of course, feels the need to SHOW us what happened to Ryan in a big action scene full of explosions.  The scene itself doesn’t work (the idea that Jack unbuckled himself to help the nervous rookie feels very silly and cliche to me), and the whole notion that in a modern blockbuster film we need to SEE this play out, as opposed to having it more subtly revealed to us later on, feels like an unfortunate dumbing down of this series.

Which is the right description, because the whole movie feels dumbed down.  The story doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it is stunningly overly-simplistic and linear, with nary a plot-twist to be found.  The audience, along with all the characters, know right from the beginning that Russian magnate Victor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) is the bad guy.  We know Jack has to get a key piece of evidence from him, and of course he does.  We know that Jack’s fiancee (Keira Knightly) is going to get caught in the mission of Jack’s first mission in the field, and of course she does.  We know it’s going to wind up in a big action sequence, and of course it does.  The end, roll credits.

What a disappointment!  It’s hugely clear that this script was not initially intended to be a Jack Ryan movie.  (The original script by Adam Cozad, titled Dubai, was eventually re-written to be a Jack Ryan story.)  Tom Clancy’s work is known for its complexity and epic scale, with complex plots involving many different characters and locations.  Of course his lengthy novels get simplified for the films, but the previous four Ryan films have all been able to maintain, to one degree or another, that complexity in their plots.  Sadly Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit has none of that.

Which could still work if the characters were interesting.  Having a narrower focus than the other films, just telling the story of Jack’s first hectic day(s) in the field, could be interesting.  But unfortunately the script totally fails the fine cast that has been assembled.  Pretty much every character is a simple two-dimensional character-type.  None of these characters are interesting, and I really didn’t care about any of them.

Even the title is stupid.  Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit?  Ugh.  This movie was originally going to be titled just Jack Ryan, and god I wish Hollywood would stop using this stupid trend of the name of the male lead as the title.  It didn’t work for John Carter, it didn’t work for Jack Reacher, and it doesn’t work for Jack Ryan.  I am glad they decided to go with a subtitle, to at least add some flavor to the title, but the staggeringly generic and meaningless phrase Shadow Recruit didn’t help anything.

Sigh.

I know that a great new movie featuring the Jack Ryan character can be made.  Tom Clancy wrote so many books, there’s an enormous wealth of material just sitting there waiting to me mined.  Come on, a period-piece re-telling of The Cardinal in the Kremlin would be AMAZING.  But after this dud, it looks like we’re going to have to wait a while for this series to get rebooted again…

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