‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ Forgets What Makes Tom Clancy’s Hero Stand Out

Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit movie poster

While watching “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” it didn’t take long to realize like the CIA analyst hero of the late Tom Clancy’s novels has been rebooted one too many times. After being portrayed by Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, Jack Ryan got his clock turned backwards when Ben Affleck played him in “The Sum of All Fears.” I have no problem admitting I liked that film, but casting a younger actor as Ryan ended up screwing with the franchise’s equilibrium. Things were going smoothly beforehand, so why throw a younger actor, any young actor, into this role and take the audience back in time? Why not bring Baldwin back? When is all said and done, Baldwin is still the best actor to inhabit this character.

Well, now we have Pine taking over the role of the brilliant Jack Ryan, and this time the franchise goes right back to the beginning of Ryan’s career. What results is by no means a bad movie as it is well made, features a number of strong performances and some exciting action scenes. Regardless, there’s a feeling of emptiness at this film’s core. The problem it’s not much different from the many spy movies I have seen over the years and, as a result, feels largely forgettable.

For those who remember Fred Dalton Thompson’s character of Rear Admiral Joshua Painter from “The Hunt for Red October,” he gave a speech in which he talked about how Ryan was severely injured in a helicopter crash back in the 70’s and spent the following year learning to walk again. This is the Ryan we meet here when this film begins as he is compelled to enlist in the military after the events of September 11, 2001. From there, we watch him recovering from a helicopter crash, and he recuperates over time with the help of Dr. Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), the woman we know will eventually become his wife.

During his lengthy recovery, Ryan is paid a visit by CIA official Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) who recruits him to work for the agency. We then move forward ten years later to when Ryan is working on Wall Street as a compliance officer at a stock brokerage, but this job is of course a cover for his real work as a covert CIA analyst as he keeps an eye out for financial transactions which are suspect and may indicate terrorist activity. Upon discovering trillions of dollars held by Russian organizations have gone missing, the trail of criminality leads him to Russian tycoon Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh). Ryan travels to Russia and, from there, things go bang, bang, bang like you would expect.

I think one of the big mistakes made with “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” was that the filmmakers decided not to base it on any of Clancy’s novels. I know Clancy was always highly critical of the way Hollywood treated his books and I’m pretty sure he would have had many things to say about this installment had he lived to see it. At the same time, his stories were always intricate and fascinating, and the screenplay here by Adam Cozad and David Koepp is both confusing and hard in comparison. As a result, it feels a surprisingly lightweight compared to the complex stories Clancy came up with.

In addition to playing Jack Ryan’s chief nemesis, Branagh also directed the movie and has come to show a real panache for filming exciting action scenes. There’s also a crazy car chase near the end which really did have me on the edge of my seat, and he has come a long way from directing big budget movies like “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein” and “Thor.” Granted, you can’t go into this expecting something on the level of his Shakespeare cinematic adaptations, but he does provide the audience with a fun time. The problem is the story of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is very routine, and it was hard to get excited about what unfolded once I made this realization.

In all fairness, Pine does make for a good Jack Ryan in the way the character was written here. As tired as I am of movie studios making all these origin movies, Pine brings the same kind of energy to this role as he did to “Star Trek” as James Kirk. While this Ryan is not as interesting here as he was in the previous films, Pine does the best that he can with a somewhat underwritten part.

One performance in particular I want to point out is Costner’s as Thomas Harper. It’s fascinating to watch him here after having seen him as the heroic young soldier in movies like “No Way Out,” and he is aging nicely into the role of the elder statesmen who imparts his wisdom and advice to newbies. Part of the fun in watching Costner here is how mysterious he makes Harper. Ryan is not sure he can trust him fully, and Costner’s constant poker face throws not only him off, but the audience as well.

But despite all the good things about “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” the whole package feels far too ordinary for it to work effectively. We’ve seen this kind of story before, and not much was done to elevate it above the usual fare this genre has to offer. In the process of trying to make Jack Ryan young again in the hopes of jump starting this long-running franchise, they have robbed the character of what made him unique. In this film, he’s like any other young CIA recruit who has yet to understand what he’s getting himself into, and I have seen this scenario played out far too many times before.

For me, Jack Ryan was always the accidental action hero. He has a brilliant mind and always gets to the truth of the matter because he takes the time to study the individual at the center of the story. Like John McClane, he’s not out to be the hero and is always looking to avoid life threatening situations, but he eventually steps up to the plate because no one else can, and no else knows what he knows. If they ever do make another Jack Ryan, they need to make him the analyst he’s always been and not just start from scratch with an origin story. We know all about Ryan’s past, now let’s deal with his present and future. Is this too much to ask?

* * ½ out of * * * *

 

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Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is Wonderfully Old-Fashioned

Murder on the Orient Express 2017 movie poster

Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” marks a return of sorts for the actor and director. His last few movies as a director, “Thor,” “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” and “Cinderella,” had him embracing all the cinematic tools available to him to where his unique talents threatened to be squashed as he began to look like any other filmmaker making blockbuster motion pictures. But with this latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel, we see him returning to his theatre roots as he directs an all-star cast to excellent performances while simultaneously playing the lead role of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The late Leonard Nimoy said he never directed another “Star Trek” movie after “The Voyage Home” because acting and directing at the same time was just too much work. Branagh, however, makes it all look like a walk in the park, and after all these years I am astonished that he can make it look so easy.

Branagh is fantastic as Hercule, and he makes this classic character into a man of many splendors. We first see him being very picky about being served two hard-boiled eggs, both of which need to be the same size for him to eat. This scene almost makes him looks like a food snob, but then we see him solve a crime at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Hercule brings up three holy men to the front of the crowd, and immediately we think one of them is guilty, and that, once the guilty man is revealed, people will find their prejudices to be justified. But instead, Hercule implicates another man with the crime, and it shows how he sees sins as being universal and not relegated to a particular group or ethnicity. From there, we know this man will not be bound by prejudice when it comes to solving a crime.

Hercule just wants to take a holiday aboard the Orient Express, and we see him take great joy in observing perfectly baked foods as well in reading Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” which he laughs at constantly. But detectives like him can only stay on vacation for so long as the scent of crime is never far from him. And, as the movie’s title implies, a murder is committed which only he can solve with his unique set of skills. This will not be an easy case, but Hercule is quick to tell us, “If it were easy, I would not be famous.”

“Murder on the Orient Express” has been adapted several times, the most famous adaptation being Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film which, like this one, features an all-star cast. I have not seen any of the previous versions nor have I read Christie’s novel, so I am coming into this one a fresh newbie. From the start, I expected Branagh’s film to be an old-fashioned whodunit, but as it went on, I was surprised to see the story deal with themes Shakespeare wrote about time and time again. It becomes less about who the murderer is and more about the sins we allow ourselves to live with and of the different kinds of punishment we are forced to endure. Once the murderer is revealed, the story doesn’t stop there.

Branagh brings together a terrific group of actors who sink their teeth into roles which, on the surface, might seem underwritten and one-dimensional, but each actor does excellent work in creating an inner life for their characters to where their eyes tell us more than their mouths do. Even as they work on perfecting their poker faces, something which Hercule has them all beat at, their eyes betray a truth which can no longer stay buried.

Johnny Depp shows up as Edward Ratchett, an unsavory individual who becomes the victim of the story. Seeing Depp getting killed off early on in a movie is guaranteed to please many audience members who have had their fill of him, and I don’t just mean Amber Heard. I’m just glad Branagh cast him in this role instead of as Hercule. Depp would have just resurrected his Guy LaPointe character from “Tusk” and “Yoga Hosers” if he played Hercule, or perhaps he would have given us another variation on Charlie Mortdecai as, like Hercule, that character sports a truly extravagant mustache. All the same, Depp is wonderful in the role and makes Ratchett into a despicable character whose nasty fate deserves a thorough investigation.

I loved watching Penelope Cruz as Pilar Estravados as her demeanor presents the character as one with dark intentions as well as someone who has suffered far too much pain and tragedy in life. It took me a bit to recognize Josh Gad who plays Ratchett’s right-hand man, Hector MacQueen, and he is excellent as a man who has compromised his values once too often. Daisy Ridley, whom we cannot wait to see again as Rey in the next “Star Wars” movie, matches Branagh scene for scene as Mary Debenham, a lady who refuses to be investigated by Hercule for a protracted amount of time, but even her poker face falls apart before she realizes it. And you can always depend on Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench and Willem Dafoe to turn in excellent performances as they rarely, if ever, have let us down.

But one performance I want to single out in particular is Michelle Pfeiffer’s who portrays Caroline Hubbard. 2017 has been a big year for Pfeiffer as she has emerged from what seems like an infinitely long hiatus and has given unforgettable and scene-stealing performances in Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” and Barry Levinson’s “The Wizard of Lies.” The same goes with her performance here as she takes the stereotypical divorced socialite and renders her into a complex figure of tragedy whose armor is harder for Hercule to break through. Pfeiffer has always been a fantastic actress, and her performance as Caroline reminded me of this and of how long her career has lasted. She has a show-stopping moment towards the movie’s end (you’ll know it when you see it), and it is further proof of how she has never been just another pretty face in Hollywood.

Branagh has directed “Murder on the Orient Express” as a theatre piece, and it is clear to me how much attention he has given the actors here. Having said that, he also gives this adaption a beautifully cinematic look. Along with his collaborators, director of photography Haris Zambarloukos and composer Patrick Doyle, he makes this film feel wonderfully old-fashioned, and it seems like forever since I have watched a movie which evokes this feeling. It should also be noted how he shot this movie on 65mm film which suits the material perfectly, and seeing those cigarette burns appear on the screen was a very welcome sight for me.

Of course, not everything about “Murder on the Orient Express” is perfect. The movie does drag a bit towards the end, and the story is at times a bit hard to follow. It also pales in comparison to another mystery movie Branagh directed back in the 1990’s, “Dead Again.” Still, it proves to be a wonderfully entertaining motion picture which reminded me of his best work even while not quite equaling it. The ending draws our attention to another Agatha Christie classic novel which implies, if this movie does well, we could be seeing the beginning of a franchise. I do hope this happens as Branagh has put together a wonderfully entertaining motion picture which begs for a continuation. Whether he can come up with a follow up remains to be seen as the world of movies remains dominated by endless superhero/comic book franchises.

I also have to say the mustache Branagh sports in this movie is very impressive. Lord knows how long it took for him to grow and keep so pointy. Many other actors would have been easily upstaged by such a mustache, but not Branagh.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Thor’ Arrives with Thunderous Abandon

Thor movie poster

Thor” makes its presence known with thunderous abandon. Now like many comic books, this one is yet another I haven’t read, so I can’t say how true it stays to its origins. However, judging from the great Kenneth Branagh’s handling of the material, I imagine it’s very respectful to the character.

Heeding closely to classic Norse mythology, Thor is the god of thunder and heir to the throne of Asgard. But on the day of his ascension, the Frost Giants invade the planet’s deeper regions to retrieve the Casket of Ancient Winters, the source of their power. They are easily defeated, but their violation of the truce put together between them and Asgard seriously pisses Thor off. Against his father’s wishes, he and his fellow warriors journey to the Frost Giants home planet of Jotunheim to keep some frosty ass. Odin, however, intervenes and, infuriated with his son’s arrogance, strips him of his powers and banishes him to Earth. For a warrior like Thor, being banished to Earth does feel like a nasty insult.

First off, I really liked the way Branagh handled this material. In the wrong hands, this could have easily become high camp which would have been enjoyable for all the wrong reasons. But Branagh takes the characters and places they inhabit seriously, and he infuses them all with a strong humanity which comes to define them more than does their place in the universe. Even the villains are remarkably complex as their corruption results not so much from a need for power, but instead for a father’s love and approval. Of course, with Branagh directing, you can count on many Shakespearean references throughout, be it Iago from “Othello” or “King Lear,” and they prove to be a perfect fit for this movie.

I was also impressed with how well Branagh handled the visual elements of “Thor.” The last time he made a movie heavy with special effects was “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein,” and he seemed a bit out of his league with that one. Perhaps we should not be impressed as this movie has a budget of at least $100 million, not counting advertisement costs, but the key thing here is the effects succeed in being an extension of the characters instead of just dwarfing them completely. Then again, that giant creature the Frost Giants unleash on Thor immediately had Liam Neeson screaming in my head, “RELEASE THE KRAKEN!!!”

As Thor, Chris Hemsworth, who played Captain Kirk’s father in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” owns the role right from the first moment he walks onscreen. Hemsworth clearly revels in portraying the great power Thor possesses, and he is a gentleman when the situation calls for it. Seeing him as a fish out of water on Earth also makes for some splendid moments which are slyly comic. I’m also glad to see Thor is not just another character who doesn’t want to be “the one,” conflicted about the things he is destined to do. With Hemsworth, you know from the get go he is fully aware he’s “the one” and owns this knowledge to where you feel his impatience in wanting to prove it to the universe. Instead of a whiny Anakin Skywalker, Hemsworth gives us a powerful warrior worth cheering for, and one who eventually learns from his mistakes.

As scientist Jane Foster, Natalie Portman’s casting in the role seems like a no brainer. We know from her off screen life that she is a remarkably intelligent human being, so she doesn’t have to prove to us how believable she can be as a scientist. She sparks instant chemistry with Hemsworth (damn those six pack abs!!!), and that shy smile of hers kills me every single time.

Then there’s the great Sir Anthony Hopkins whose portrayal of Asgard’s king and father to Thor, Odin, is nothing short of gallant. This is especially the case with the opening narration which he recites with such depth to where he makes all other actors who’ve done it before him sound like they were sleepwalking their way through it. While many may think this is one of those roles Hopkins did for an easy paycheck, it’s really one of the best performances he’s given in a while.

Tom Hiddleston plays Loki, Thor’s brother and the movie’s main villain. What I liked about Hiddleston is how he does so much more than give us the usual one-dimensional bad guy. Just like Joaquin Phoenix’s character from “Gladiator,” Loki feels slighted by his father as he prefers another man over him, and he becomes desperately eager to prove himself in any way he can. But of course, he ends up doing it in the worst way possible. Hiddleston makes Loki into a character who is more spiteful than hateful, and this makes his eventual fate seem all the more tragic in retrospect.

There are other strong performances throughout this blockbuster affair to enjoy as well. Rene Russo, where have you been? Idris Elba makes a memorable Heimdall, and it never seems like a small part with him playing it. Kat Dennings steals a few scenes as Darcy Lewis, Jane’s co-worker whose science is more political than astronomical. And Stellan Skarsgård remains a dependable actor as always playing scientist Erik Selvig, a character who ends up playing an important role in “The Avengers.”

Having said all this, “Thor” did feel like it could have been a little more exciting. It doesn’t quite have the same invigorating sweep as some of Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations like “Hamlet” or “Henry V,” and it takes longer to get to the action than it should. It’s not quite as entertaining as “Iron Man,” but I would definitely rank it above “The Incredible Hulk.”

Regardless, there is still much to like about “Thor,” and Branagh has done the best job anyone could have in bringing this particular comic book hero to the big screen in such a respectful fashion. It also benefits from excellent casting, especially Hemsworth who looks like he came out of the womb looking like a warrior with a mighty hammer in his hand. This is one of the few times where “getting hammered” will sound more like a threat than an embarrassing state of drunkenness.

* * * out of * * * *