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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Review - Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Cal takes a look at the reboot of Tom Clancy's 'Jack Ryan' series of films, which finds Chris Pine stepping into the shoes of Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Alec Baldwin.  How does he fare?  

Can I preface this review a bit?  I feel like I need to preface this a bit.  I grew up reading Tom Clancy.  I grew up watching those geopolitical and espionage action-thrillers that so dominated a chunk of the 90s, things like Air Force One and Enemy of the State.  I remember them fondly.  And in an era of widespread CGI destruction, I still appreciate action films that don't try to punch above their weight, things like last year's superior Ninja: Shadow of a Tear.  It's not my favorite genre, but it's something that I've always had a lot of affection for, and it's something that we don't tend to see often.

Got it?  Good.

So... Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is pretty good.  Right?  Yeah.  I'm pretty sure I'm right.

Chris Pine works well as Jack Ryan, though it's not like the character has enough depth (or enough standing in the popular consciousness) to demand too particular a performance.  Pine has a casual charisma that fits Ryan well, but he dials back the swagger he brought to James Kirk in Star Trek by about a thousand notches in favor of a more reserved confidence.  Pine plays Ryan's intelligence at the forefront, a welcome change of pace that gives the movie a few of its strongest scenes.  Keira Knightley and Kevin Costner are given substantially less to do, but both acquit themselves well.  Knightley's practiced charm is brought out in full force during one of her few scenes with Kenneth Branagh, but she never lets the character descend into melodrama, playing even her outbursts and suspicions with some restraint.  Costner, meanwhile, has the world-weary mentor thing down pat, bringing a dry wit to an underwritten role.

The biggest weakness is probably Branagh himself.  No, not as an actor - sure, his Russian terrorist, Viktor Cherevin, is so hammy I thought I smelled Christmas dinner, but it's the right kind of ham, the just-this-side-of-camp kind of ham.  Cherevin is, indeed, probably my favorite part of the film.  No, Branagh's issue is as a director.  He couldn't put together a coherent action sequence in Thor, and he struggles with it here as well.  The action is heavily dependent on the much-loathed 'shaky cam', but, as ever, it's not the tool's fault, but the misapplication of that tool.  Good shaky-cam use is almost always about enhancing emotion and audience identification, whether it's forcing us into Jason Bourne's jittery, life-or-death headspace or tricking us into thinking that we could live in Dillon, TX, run into Matt Saracen on the street, see Coach Taylor at the grocery.  Bad shaky-cam use is about nothing.  It's about style, or (worse) about obfuscation.  If clarity is the soul of drama (and I think there's a strong argument to be made that it is), then concealing too much from the audience gets in the way of that drama - and that's just as true of action.

And then there are the sequences that make you wish the rest of the movie lived up to them.  The sole action sequence that works well is also the one most widely spoiled in the trailers, where Jack is attacked in his hotel.  It's a well-crafted moment that borrows heavily from Bourne and Casino Royale, and the shaky-cam there is relatively mild but helps convey the scene's tension and Ryan's fraying nerves.  But that scene doesn't hold a candle to the mid-film heist sequence that finds Ryan breaking into a high-security office building.  It's a surprisingly tense scene, well-handled on almost all fronts, and probably the movie's high water mark.  Both sequences could stand a pass from a more inventive director, I think, but in the movie we got, they work and work well.

At a lean 105 minutes, it's also a modern action film that finds itself in the rare place of leaving you wanting a little more, rather than leaving you exhausted with what you got.  Like 2013's similarly unambitious-but-unexpectedly-worthwhile The Wolverine and White House Down, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit isn't necessarily a terribly good movie, but it is a fun one, especially for those who find themselves pining for a slightly more restrained action film.  Its cast - Pine, Costner, and Knightley - fit comfortably into their roles, and the movie's needlessly cute (or too predictably trite) moments are mostly excised to keep momentum building.  Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit has its problems, but it remains a surprisingly enjoyable thriller.

I give it a B
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