Jack Ryan: The Wonder Years

“The only way there could be a war is if they start it; we’re not going to start a war.”
– Ronald Reagan in an interview for People magazine, 12 June 1983

Can we say this is an ugly poster? Because this is an ugly poster.

Can we say this is an ugly poster? Because this is an ugly poster.

When people mention how things have changed since, the notion of the “changed hero” usually reflects the humanity that was given to rescue workers. When the attacks took place, salvation was not given on behalf of superpowered beings in capes or would-be John McClanes seeking fame; it was due to the tireless work and lost lives of firefighters, police officers, EMTs, medics, and countless other ordinary citizens who went above and beyond the call of duty.

Hesitant to respond were the taste-makers in Hollywood. As they scrambled to digitally erase all now-anachronistic appearances of the World Trade towers, they must have known that the public would be desperate for their fictional heroes to respond. But how would they? How does one portray the strategies of an enemy the likes of which Rambo and Commando never faced? Moreso, how does one portray said enemy as The Enemy without resorting to pre-PC era demonising? Most important of all (to Hollywood): how do you do it with the widest possible appeal, so as to put butts in seats? This was no longer a job for the suave James Bonds and actively diplomatic Jack Ryans of peace time.

And whilst Hollywood was wringing its hands over just how to craft a new hero for this new era, the public slowly let them know that said hero had already arrived. One film and one tv series, both well into production before 9/11, suddenly came to represent the new American hero in the so-called “War on Terrorism”: the show was 24 and the film was The Bourne Identity. The shaky-cam adventures of the bone-breaking/torture-happy Jack Bauer and the bone-breaking/highly adaptive Jason Bourne were now what audiences wanted. They got answers through use of force and in doing so protected those for whom they cared. Both began their successful runs in 2002 (though 24 began in November of 2001), the same year opinion turned sour towards the latest 007 film, Die Another Day. The old ways were obsolete.

Realising that they had to adapt or perish, Hollywood began intentionally cranking out this kind of product. Few will argue with the idea that the revamped James Bond series, beginning with Casino Royale, owes a substantial amount of its pedigree to the Bourne films. And now, so too does Jack Ryan have another revamp. But whilst the visual aesthetic owes heavily to action films of the past decade, the story owes a great deal to the good old-fashioned Cold War era.

Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is a gifted-but-unmotivated student at the London School of Economics when he witnesses the September 11th attacks on television. Inspired to serve his homeland, he immediately drops out of school and enlists in the United States Marine Corps. When he’s injured in an RPG attack – in which he still manages to save the lives of two fellow soldiers – he’s recruited into the CIA by Cmdr. Harper (Kevin Costner), formerly of the US Navy.

Ten years later Jack has earned his econ degree and gone undercover as an analyst at a major Wall Street firm. With a decade away from combat and an unknowing fiancée (Keira Knightley), Jack is hesitant to “get his hands dirty” in the fight to defend the US. But when he uncovers a plot by Russian billionaire Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) to cripple the US economy, Jack might be the only one who can stop him.

The dog might also be an agent - we never find out for sure.

The dog might also be an agent – we never find out for sure.

For a film that spends its opening minutes placing such heavy on emphasis on being post-9/11, the story itself is decidedly Cold War. The villain is a ruthless Russian, the hero is a Wall Street yuppie, and the film’s knowledge of computers is straight out of War Games. Perhaps the film-makers were too concerned with insulting a country with which the US currently has tension, but the use of a Russian supervillian isn’t any more sensible now than it was in the previous Jack Ryan reboot, 2002’s The Sum of All Fears. An actual film produced during the Cold War wouldn’t have pulled any punches. These films – as well as the recent remake of Red Dawn – handle the subject matter with kid gloves.

But then, this is the first film to use Tom Clancy’s character without being based on anything Clancy actually wrote. What made Jack Ryan stand out amongst his other ‘80s action hero contemporaries was that he was never meant to be an “action” guy, so to speak. Jack Ryan was a diplomat and from-the-gut strategist, not a knock-around guy. Sure, he kept finding himself in such situations because he felt he had to assess all of them personally. But his strategy was to run away from gunfire, not toward it. The new Jack Ryan pushes his body to limits that would leave the world’s most hardened warriors in tractions, if not dead. That Ryan is shown doing this in spite of supposedly chronic back pain, is nothing short of superhuman.

Other than specifically setting the film in 2013, the only other aspect that marks this as contemporary is that is, like the new Bond films, has a Bourne-influenced visual style. (Incidentally Ryan’s first kill is a near plagiarisation of Bond’s first kill from Casino Royale). But Bond and Jason Bourne’s body took a lot of injury and it was always reflected upon later. What’s more, he used a physical confrontation as a last resort, not first. When you’re trying to keep a low profile, punching everyone and crashing cars doesn’t seem very discrete.

And what of the actor behind the new Jack Ryan? Well, Chris Pine is… Chris Pine. He’s not a bad actor, but there is nothing in his performance here to distinguish it from his roles in Unstoppable or the Star Trek films. Faring better is Kevin Costner. The guy’s never gonna win an Oscar (for acting), but he’s surprisingly effective as Ryan’s superior. Keira Knightly is The Woman – end of story. Then there’s director Kenneth Branagh as the film’s villain. I’ll admit that I don’t speak Russian, but Branagh’s accent struck me as the kind of quasi-Transylvanian “Russkie” accent heard in the sort of bad ‘80s action movie. It doesn’t help to hear him speak – or see him act – alongside an uncredited Mikhail Baryshnikov.

“I think you’ll find I’m a director very open to constructive criticism.”

Tom Clancy’s strength was never prose. Rather his stories were designed to be pulp paperbacks that one reads over a weekend or on a plane flight. His attention for detail was uncanny, but his stories were rarely meant to leave a lasting impression. With the exception of the attention to detail, the new film almost fits the above description to a “T”. It’s light enough so as to not be a “downer” to the audience, but not definitive enough to be remembered. And when you’re trying to restart a franchise, the last thing you want is for it to be so easily forgettable.

Grade: B-

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