In 1984, a novel by an insurance salesman from Maryland created a sensation. The book was “The Hunt For Red October” and it started the political-military techno-thriller genre. It was a case of the right book at the right time, and it was required reading in the Reagan White House. The story introduced CIA analyst and former marine Jack Ryan, and spawned a bestselling series of books. In 1990 the movie version of Red October became one of the top grossing pictures of the year. Alec Baldwin originated the role of Ryan, then was replaced in the next two sequels by Harrison Ford. The series, both in print and on film, ran out of steam by the mid-1990s. In 2002 Clancy tried a literary reboot with a younger Jack Ryan in “Red Rabbit” and Paramount sought to revive the series with Ben Affleck at Ryan in The Sum Of All Fears. Neither was successful. Clancy wrote one more book himself which starred Jack Ryan’s son, but from then on there was only a series of ghost-written paperbacks that used his name as advertising. Clancy was only sixty-six when he passed away last year. Now Paramount has tried another reboot of the series, putting Ryan into the post-9/11 world, but Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit leaves the cold warrior out in the cold.
The hallmark of the series was a broad canvas story with plenty of twists and turns, but Shadow Recruit is a small scale paint-by-numbers picture. The first quarter of the movie is dedicated to backstory with Ryan (Chris Pine) pursuing a financial degree in London when the towers fall. He enlists and is sent to Afghanistan, where his helicopter is shot down and he’s severely injured. He’s sent to Walter Reed Hospital for therapy to learn to walk again, working with Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), a young medical student who becomes his love interest. He also comes to the attention of Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), a naval officer now working for the CIA.
Recently there was a long discussion on the message board of the Mystery Writers of America about prologues. About half of those writing thought they were of the devil, to be avoided at all costs, while others thought prologues could be effective in a narrow, controlled way. This movie provides a strong argument for the former. In The Hunt For Red October, Ryan’s backstory was communicated with a couple sentences. Here the extended prologue underlines the weakness of the rest of the film’s half-baked plot.
That plot involves Ryan in the present day working undercover as a Wall Street analyst with an international investment company where he discovers a plot by a Russian oligarch, Victor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), to destroy the US economy. At the same time, Ryan’s dealing with his long-term relationship with Cathy who doesn’t know of his CIA connection.
The screenplay was originally done “on spec” which means the first time screenwriter, Adam Cozad, wrote it and then looked for someone to make it. Apparently the long-time producer of the series, Mace Neufeld, liked the script (originally titled “Moscow”) and brought in a production team that included Lorenzo di Bonaventura (of the Transformers and G.I. Joe series) and David Barron, who helped produce the Harry Potter series and had worked with Branagh on several of his Shakespeare adaptations as well as his version of Frankenstein. Veteran screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Spider-man) was hired to work on the script, and he did enough to get co-credit for the movie. But they didn’t capture the dynamic of the original stories. What you’re left with is a Swiss cheese screenplay: plenty of holes, and what isn’t a hole is pretty cheesy. In an attempt to heighten the suspense, the terrorist plot is revealed to be taking place within a day, yet it would be impossible for either the terrorists or the good guys to get to the target in that time without borrowing the warp drive from Chris Pine’s other series, Star Trek. It’s also an insult to the audience’s intelligence when they set up a complex high-security system for Cherevin’s office, but Ryan defeats the security with ridiculous ease when he breaks in.
The actors do what they can with what they’re given, but they don’t rise above generic action/adventure characters. A problem for Kevin Costner is they took two of Clancy’s characters, Admiral Greer and CIA operative John Clark, and mixed them into one, so he’s supposed to be both a senior honcho in the CIA as well as an operations man. It strains credulity. Branagh’s direction makes the film look better than it deserves to, but there’s only so much you can do to counter a weak script.
The movie had a deservedly poor opening, which will likely mean no sequels. Jack Ryan was a good character for the 1980’s and the early 1990’s, but his time has passed. You’d be better served watching a DVD of one of the first three movies (or even The Sum of All Fears) than seeing this pale attempt to time warp Ryan back into relevancy.