Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series has a rich history the American public -- at one time anyway -- prized warmly. For the Tom Clancy series, more than a hundred million books sold wasn’t enough. It became an espionage empire, spinning these spy stories into every capacity it could. Tom Clancy: Rainbow Six should ring a bell for anyone who has ever wandered over to IGN.com, the offensively popular videogame series adapted from the novel of the same name. No less than 18 titles have been committed to that brand. Another series, Ghost Recon, has had 13 games, and, of course, Splinter Cell: 7 games. But the film series most of all has cemented the relevance of the Tom Clancy brand into the eyes of the public, generating close to a billion dollars worldwide in box office revenue. Each film follows a CIA analyst and former Marine named Jack Ryan who constantly finds himself in over his head only barely able to save the day. It’s an interesting premise, one that restarted with each subsequent film so it can be repeated. Why? It works, especially in how deftly the pulpy thrills don’t overwhelm the substance. That’s not to say anyone will confuse a Jack Ryan screenplay for Leviathan or The Republic, but it always felt sincere in how existing political tensions seemed like a cohesive and vital base for international intrigue. Take how in Hunt for the Red October, or even the much lesser The Sum of All Fears, lingering fears over the Cold War never felt violated or exploited and instead felt explored, often with a graceful and sympathetic eye.
Unfortunately, the long-gestating reboot of the Jack Ryan character and series abandoned the intelligent political underpinnings of the plot and instead pitched him as a sort of knockoff James Bond from decades past. On the surface, that’s not an inherently bad thing, since as much as it diverted from the make and feel of the other films, it also indicates the ambition for Jack Ryan to function as a throwback to the classic action flick of yesteryear, much before the self-serious brooding hero of the 2000s took charge. If successful, it is a nice formula that’s worked in the past, arguably as recently as this past summer with Iron Man 3, which often feels like a product of ‘80s action thriller. Instead, Ryan feels like nothing. It’s like unwrapping a stick of gum and finding it has already been chewed: the flavor is gone, and you don’t want to put it in your mouth. Shame on the legendary adapter of Shakespeare Kenneth Branagh for thinking the script is acceptable. Giving him Thor made sense, this didn’t.
The plot is simple enough to explain, since frankly there’s not much of it in the brisk hour and forty-five minute running time. After witnessing 9/11 on the news while at university in London, a young Jack Ryan leaves his Ph.D. uncompleted to join the Marines. His squad is attacked. He rescues them at risk and injury to himself, and meets his girlfriend in rehab (a Keira Knightley with a horrid American accent that sounds like a parody of Brits trying to sound American, meaning: DEEPEN THE VOICE). His actions caught the eye of the CIA for his combo of brains and courage. He’s given a desk job spying on Wall Street and discovers fishy activities with Russian money. He travels to Moscow, and, basically, shit hits the fan. There’s a ticking bomb involved, which already indicates a grave misunderstanding of the Jack Ryan character.
He’s the Indiana Jones of modern day espionage moviemaking, an everyman figure simultaneously capable of extra-ordinary physical and intellectual feats. So, casting Harrison Ford for two of the four Jack Ryan movies was a no brainer — he plays both effortlessly -- but most of all he feels human without being superhuman. But Chris Pine doesn’t have nearly the range of Harrison Ford, or even Daniel Craig, who had to play a similarly normal fella surrounded by bullets and violence in 2011s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Pine’s too energized, too confident, and never convinces as someone frightened or disturbed, even if the dialogue tries so very hard to tell us different. This problem is twofold. On one hand, this is the first Jack Ryan film where the main character has to become a full-fledged action hero rather than the reluctant warrior who hesitantly fires his sidearm. Ryan runs into the face of danger with the nonchalant swagger of the action star Pine is seemingly forgetting the catchphrase “leap without looking” is owed to the captain of the Starship Enterprise, not the iconic CIA analyst. That’s on Pine, and I hate to say it about a star I respect as a human being and as an artist, but he was miscast.
Close to the end of the film it’s said of Ryan’s face that he always looks like a Boy Scout, and that’s absolutely right, but not in the intended way. He reacts to these fantastic scenarios the way a Boy Scout might react to a routine woodland hike, but since the script forces him into more action scenarios than the previous films, it destroys any emotional realism the film might have had. As a consequence, tension is sucked out of long passages, saved only by Branagh’s confident direction, his excellent turn as an evil scheming Russian, and, ironically, Pine’s natural earnestness. The plot too lacks urgency or purpose, mashing together arbitrary dialogues of economic jargon meaning to provoke. They do not, but they do successfully show Chris Pine’s aptitude for playing a Wall Street broker. The narrative is repulsively linear, where the villain wants to cause A to happen by putting B into action, and it’s the hero’s job to stop it. There’s no ‘moving parts‘, as seen in A Clear and Present Danger or even The Sum of All Fears. We know the villain from the get-go, he’s bad, and we got to stop him. At least the action is competently filmed (minus the early attempt to mimic Bourne). The last hour rolls at a pleasant clip, and a mid-film dinner/heist sequence that is the best thing to come out of 2013 in film so far.
It’s also amusing how Branagh seemingly cast himself as the film’s best, -- or if not best by far the most fun -- character. I mean, why not? You’d think with his history in Shakespeare he’d have brought an operatic quality to the film’s overall feel, or if not that at least a sense of theatricality or grandeur. But with a script this poor, it’s easy to see why he didn’t bother. It’s no wonder then that scenes with his self-cast villain carry an electrified touch absent elsewhere, probably because how painfully clear it is he’s having a wicked good time commanding both sides of the camera. If only I did too.