Last night Paramount gave journos in New York a 17-minute sneak peek at their upcoming action tentpole, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.” And there in the flesh, tall, rugged and handsome to introduce the footage, was Chris Pine himself, acting and looking like a regular old dude.
To hear it from Pine, this Jack Ryan isn’t your average CIA agent or assassin ala Jason Bourne, Evelyn Salt or Bryan Mills from “Taken,” he’s the opposite; a CIA analyst who’s out of his element. Unlike these other killing machines, he’s “scared,” not surefooted, and is nowhere near as slick or polished. But if Jack Ryan is in over his head in Moscow for much of ‘Shadow Recruit,’ pardon us for saying, but it seems he’s only superficially ill-equipped to fight off hitmen, killers and spy agents.
“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” has been in development for ages, essentially since 2009. It was originally a spec script from Adam Cozad called “Dubai.” And while other writers are credited (“Mission: Impossible,” “Spider-Man” and “Jurassic Park” screenwriter David Koepp did enough of a rewrite to earn a WGA credit), the skeleton of “Dubai” (renamed and rezoned as “Moscow” during its development) remains. “Dubai” was about an American economist residing in Dubai who got caught up in a highly coordinated attack on the economies of several nations. “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is about a young covert CIA analyst who uncovers the same plot to destabilize and crash the U.S. financial markets in Moscow.
The first footage shown was early first-act stuff, Ryan arriving in Moscow taken to his hotel by a friendly Ugandan guard (“Game Of Thrones” actor Nonso Anozie). He’s armed for reasons that seem vaguely suspicious to the analyst. At this point, this is a routine investigation in Moscow based off of Ryan’s hunch. But Ryan can barely get settled before his own escort tries to take him out with a silencer in his own hotel. If Ryan is just an analyst, well he’s got killer memory reflex because he dodges bullets like the best of them, thinks on his feet fast (ala Jason Bourne), and outwits his opponent despite sweating bullets. When the two men tussle, yes, it’s a drag-out, ugly fight that Ryan has to bareknuckle to survive, but considering his fighting skills under duress, it felt a little disingenuous to hear Ryan is supposed to simply be an analyst. Plus, haven’t we heard and seen this paradigm before? A young, inexperienced agent or cop or security staff guy finding himself out of his depth in a dangerous scenario that he eventually wills himself to not only cope with, but excel at?
Where the writers appear to attempt to inject the idea that Ryan is green and not combat-ready is in post-action sequences. After he drowns his bodyguard in the aforementioned Moscow hotel, Ryan is on the phone with his contacts, visibly shaken and scared out of his wits. What does he do next? They talk him down, tell him not to panic and meet a contact in a big public park
On his way there, the paranoid and rattled man receives a phone call from his girlfriend in the U.S. Played by Keira Knightley, she’s just checking in with her man, wondering if he can finish his duties early and meet her in Paris in a few days' time. Of the belief he is being followed, Ryan is distracted and not really in the mood to talk. He politely shoos her off the phone, but not before stopping to remind her that he loves her madly and deeply. In what is some element of character backstory we’re unaware of, he says to her for some reason, “don’t lose your faith in me.”
From there, Ryan meets his contact in the park. It’s what appears to be his CIA supervisor from America (Kevin Costner), and so shaken up and paranoid, he barely wants to sit down and talk. “You’re shaking,” Costner says looking down at Ryan’s hands. “It’ s OK that you do that afterwards, not during,” he says, referring to combat. Costner tries to talk him down, tell him about the first time he killed someone: an innocent bystander. He tells him you don’t get over it, you just learn to live with it. From there Ryan goes into expository mode, boiling down the elements of the plot. He tells him about the aforementioned Russian plot he’s uncovered to ruin the global economy, targeting the U.S. first. If his analytical hypothesis is correct, the the global markets will panic and the collapse will create the “2nd great depression,” there will be bread lines, and the U.S. will be in serious turmoil. Worse, the next logical move to kick America once she’s down would be a terrorist attack on American soil.
This long scene ends and the second one is a flash forward deeper into the film. Keira Knightley is already in Russia and there’s some serious friction between her and Ryan. He’s been lying to her for three years. “I took an oath,” Ryan says about the CIA status he couldn’t reveal to her. He even tried to marry her so he could tell her, which she takes as a kind of wounded, backhanded compliment. While they bicker about secrets and lies, Costner’s character shuts them down fast. They’ve got 8 minutes to make a plan and if they fail, their fates and those of innocent Americans may be sealed. And 4 minutes have already been wasted kvetching as if they were in a couples therapy session, so shut up and listen, thank you very much.
The plan is somewhat simple: Knightley is the bait. She has to distract the movie’s main antagonist (Kenneth Branagh, talked about, but not seen in this preview). She’s got 10 minutes to use her sexual charms to distract him while Ryan goes and puts a CIA gadget into his office that will allow Costner and his agents to hack into his computer electronically and remotely (high-tech mumbo jumbo). Ryan doesn’t like the idea of his girl as the snare in this ruse, but Costner’s not giving him any choice. More importantly, she’s game, even if it’s just to spite Ryan. As far as she’s concerned, this relationship is over and presumably that gives Ryan some personal friction to deal with while he and Costner sort out the drama in this action thriller.
“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is propulsive enough in this 17 minutes of footage and Branagh (doing double duty as director and villain) seems to have done his action homework. But one can’t shake the sense that they’ve seen this all before (and the extended sizzle reel trailer that followed shows anything but a scared, in-over-his-head analyst). All the beats are far too familiar, none of it feels especially fresh, new or unique. Since Paramount is rebooting the Jack Ryan franchise, perhaps that’s the point: a franchise geared at fans of these action spy films and surely set up to launch a new trilogy and beyond. That’s all well and good, but truthfully, there’s nothing in this preview that points to anything particularly individual (and honestly, what we’re shown is basically derivative of the genre). Is there something to “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” that we have yet to see? It’s very possible, but with a January 17, 2014 release date, this is either “Taken” (the rare action film that took off during this dumping ground season) or another unremarkable actioner placed in this part of the calendar for good reason.