Jack Ryan: Shadow Revision

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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a captivating reboot of Tom Clancy’s quintessential Cold War hero for modern times.

Tom Clancy’s protagonist’s original story traced the life and culture of his times.  Jack Ryan’s journey made it to cinema in a series of movies that most would know or have heard of: The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, and others.  Jack Ryan was a fit, clever analyst whose Marine career ended in a training accident before he ever saw battle.  Ryan was a hero fit for the Cold War, where posturing and guessing at schemes within schemes were more the order of the day.

The original Ryan novels had a foiled pair of protagonists, Ryan worked intelligence, and was occasionally forced to action.  Outside was Clark, the CIA operative and former Navy SEAL bad-ass who was a noble warrior in the shadows.  The two heroes were not friends, merely both ends of the CIA continuum doing their jobs with great skill and patriotic conviction.  Those words seem dated now, as they are increasingly the ideals of another time, but we have always been able to judge a culture’s character by their heroes.

Writers Adam Cozad and David Koepp have revised the Jack Ryan story for a new generation with a few deft twists.  The change in character merges the older characters of Ryan and Clark, an analyst who can fight and kill like an elite soldier when he needs to.  I remain nostalgic for the old balance but I must admit that the new characterization works well for the younger audience.  The changes in character and tempo compare well with the other reboot starring Chris Pine, the Star Trek movies.

Many excellent thing from Clancy’s novels survive the revision.  Clancy’s CIA agents were dedicated, loyal, and courageous individuals who protected and served the country that they loved.  Jack Ryan provides a refreshing counterpoint to the overused and mindless Hollywood idea that the nation’s intelligence services are full of corrupt, evil, and untrustworthy psychopaths.  Jack Ryan is the inversion of that trope, the polar opposite of the Jason Bourne films.

Jack Ryan is well-shot and well-acted.  Director Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean background shows through here as he threads a neat needle between dynamic, memorable characters and human, credible heroes.  The action is brisk and engaging without stepping over into James Bond-style fantasy.  There is a great bit of variety here that does not show up in Bond or Bourne flicks, where explosions, kung-fu, and bullets are the norm.  Tom Clancy’s novels always carried a sense of the urgency in timing in field craft and the analyst’s office as well.  There were phone calls in this movie that had me on the edge of my seat, which impressed me.

Branagh’s villain, Viktor Cherevin, carries a great deal of menace without physical violence.  But one of Britain’s most famous actors is up to the task.  I really enjoyed Kevin Costner’s Thomas Harper, Ryan’s mentor in the CIA.  Costner’s performances are always under-emoted, but his skills have aged well, and his presence carries through here as self-possessed control that fits a more conservative (not traditional) traditional spy.

The cinematography is solid without being flashy.  This isn’t a travel adventure so the scenery is solid and striking but reserved.  At no point does the background imagery or the solid musical score distract from the story being told.  I particularly liked the Russian bad guys meeting in a stretch of bleak and anonymous forest, a setting that embodies the mixture of modernity with the brutality of Russia’s medieval past that carries through in some ways today.

The family values crowd should go crazy for this movie.  There isn’t any womanizing on-screen (though it is referred to as part of the villain’s persona), characters genuinely love and respect one another.  I was so happy to see a romance where the woman did not immediately insist that the warrior she loves stop being a warrior because his necessary work involves danger.  A little bit of the family-values hypocrisy will show through here as well.  Ryan is genuinely kind, caring, and dedicated to the woman he wants to marry, whom he is living and sleeping with.  The same people who won’t really make an outcry about that sexual immorality would give birth to barnyard animals should the sexual immorality have been homosexual instead.  The “my sins are acceptable and yours aren’t” motif also captures the character of the target audience, I feel.

That is the best that I can come up with as a criticism of the movie.  I was skeptical going in, but after taking some time to reflect I cannot imagine how they could have done a better job introducing Jack Ryan, a character I have loved for decades, to a new generation.

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