Thursday, January 16, 2014

Jack Ryan lives -- again

Chris Pine tries to breathe new life into an old franchise.
I wish I had $5 for every improbable plot twist in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a new thriller starring Chris Pine as author Tom Clancy's famed CIA agent. I might not be rich, but I'd sure as hell be eating at more upscale restaurants.

Still, it's January, and you take your movie pleasures where you find them.

Credit Pine for bringing welcome emotional vulnerability to the role of Ryan in an action-oriented movie directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also plays the movies arch villain, a misguided Russian patriot named Victor Cherevin.

Trying to reboot a Cold War series for present-day action spawns a plot that pays too little attention to veracity, stranding the movie somewhere between hard-core realism and James Bond fantasy -- with a little Mission Impossible tossed in for good measure.

No surprise there. David Koepp, who co-wrote the screenplay with Adam Cozad, also wrote the 1996 version of Mission Impossible and has a variety of additional action movies under his belt, including Spider-Man and Jurassic Park.

Shadow Recruit begins by explaining how Ryan becomes a CIA operative. A student at the London School of Economics when 9/11 hits, Ryan immediately joins the Marines. After being gravely injured in Afghanistan, he returns to the U.S. to recuperate and to be recruited by the CIA's Thomas Harper, Kevin Costner in full stolid mode.

Unlike other spies, Ryan is no womanizer. During his painful rehab, he falls for his physical therapist (Keira Knightley), a woman who soon becomes a doctor and who moves with Ryan to New York, where he works undercover as a financial analyst for a big Wall Street firm.

There's no sense trying to summarize all of the intricacies of a plot that advances both a terrorist threat and a Russian scheme to undermine the U.S. dollar.

Branagh's Victor Cherevin masterminds the plan. Ryan is sent to Moscow to thwart it. Perhaps to add more menace, the screenplay finds Knightley's Cathy following Ryan to Moscow to surprise him with her presence.

Of course, she doesn't know that he's in the CIA, and her impromptu visit complicates his mission. Not only must Ryan save the Western world, he must keep his girlfriend alive, as well.

Thankfully, the script doesn't turn Knightley's Cathy into a total cipher; it's clear that she's capable of thinking for herself. She even plays a real role in advancing the plot.

Branagh does a serviceable job with the movie's action, which takes an unsuspecting Ryan by surprise. While in Moscow, he's learning the ropes of being a CIA operative, a far more dangerous job than he initially expected.

Fortunately, Ryan's a remarkably quick learner. One minute he's fretting about not knowing his way around Moscow; the next, he's driving a car at breakneck speeds through the city's streets. The script doesn't allow much time for Ryan to make the transition from brainy analyst to lethal operative, but Pine does his best to make the leap as convincing as possible.

The same can't be said for the movie's wrap-up, which finds Ryan, Cathy and a CIA team flying to back to the U.S. and figuring out the rest of the plot at astonishing speeds. Oh well, what's the point of logic when the fate of the world's at stake?

Pine makes a better Ryan than his predecessors, which include Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck. If the series continues, he'll be able to put another franchise on his resume, already having landed the role as Captain Kirk in the revived Star Trek series.

Shadow Recruit mostly holds its own, but it could have been a lot better. No one asked me, but next time out, I hope the filmmakers opt for a plot that allows Ryan to ply his trade in more credible fashion.

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