Written by Andé Morgan.
It’s the summer of 1990. You’ve gone down the ocean (this means you’re from Baltimore and you’ve gone to the beach). Blissfully unaware that UV light is a potent mutagen, you look upon the masses sitting in the sand. What are they reading? Does the cover art feature Bodoni typeface and a stylized tank or a fighter jet or a fucking grenade strapped to a knife carrying a gun? It does, because it’s one of the legion of techno-spy thrillers authored by Tom Clancy. Five have been made into feature films: The Hunt for Red October (1990); Patriot Games (1992); Clear and Present Danger (1994); The Sum of All Fears (2002); and now, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014).
Clancy was a Baltimorean; he was born in Baltimore in 1947 and he died there in October. Let me tell you about my hometown: it’s grimey, hard, and it has a bad reputation. It’s also beautiful, diverse, full of artists and sages, and gifted with an abundance of character. I’ve lived all over ‘Murica and I always miss it. Consequently, I have never forgiven Clancy for The Sum of All Fears (2002). Baltimore deserved better than to blown up in an Affleck film (actually, I have forgiven Clancy, but not Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne for the screenplay or Ben Affleck for being Ben Affleck).
Jack Ryan is a reboot and the only film in the series not directly based on a Clancy novel. That’s OK because, as the title suggests, this is going to be more of the same geopolitical, macroeconomic, give-Reagan’s-ghost-a-boner stuff. Chris Pine is passable as Marine-turned-spy Jack Ryan, who is mentored by CIA agent Thomas Harper (played here by a Kevin Costner replicant hewn from solid oak by a soulless, grey CNC machine).[caption id="attachment_7822" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Moscow, right?[/caption]
Ryan is a economics doctoral candidate studying in London when Sept. 11 happens. He joins the Marines and is sent to Afghanistan. While expounding on the complex patterns of enemy movements, his helicopter is shot down and a severely injured Ryan is sent stateside for rehab. There he meets his future wife, Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), and is observed by
Major Oak Harper. The CIA is impressed with Ryan’s brainpower, and they send him back to school to prepare for a career as a super-secret stockbroker. A decade later, Ryan is a suit tasked with covertly following terror funds around Wall Street. Following a controversial Eastern European oil production vote in the United Nations, he notices that his firm’s Russian business partner is using eccentric accounting to hide trillions of dollars. The money is controlled Viktor Cheverin (Kenneth Branagh), who has a stone face and wears cheesy black suits and eats AK-47s and pisses vodka. Ryan travels to Moscow (and you know it’s Moscow because St. Peter’s Basilica is in every outdoor scene) to investigate.
Shortly after arriving at his hotel, Ryan earns his double-o by drowning an assassin. Disoriented by the violence, Ryan seeks help from
General Sherman Harper. Ryan advances the plot by explaining his theory to Harper: Russia is planning a massive U.S. currency selloff to directly follow a major terror attack. This will weaken the U.S. dollar and cause the next Great Depression. The next day, Cheverin denies all wrongdoing and claims to have sold the offending assets, thus negating Ryan’s outward reason for being in Moscow.
In the meantime, Cathy suspects Ryan is having an affair, and has flown from New York to Moscow. Looking eerily alert and well-kempt after a transatlantic flight, she confronts him in his hotel room. Trapped, Ryan spills the beans. In a surreal moment of insanity that would collapse most suspended disbelief systems,
Jack’s Oak Harper suggests including Cathy in their plans to thwart the terrorists. Spy shenanigans ensue and Ryan gets the secrets, but Cheverin kidnaps Cathy. A car chase through Moscow later, Ryan gets his wife back and deduces the rest of the sneaky Russian plan. Back in New York, Ryan commandeers a motorcycle, chases down the terrorist, and – just in time – drops the explosives in the East River. Later, Cheverin gets what he deserves, and Ryan gets the girl and a presidential commendation.
So, how can a person who: has suffered a severe back injury, is approaching middle age, has spent the last decade in an office, and admits to only having “three weeks” of CIA secret agent training, go from desk jockey to super spy overnight? Relax, it’s easy to understand when you realize that this film, like so many others, exists primarily as a white, male, cubicle-dweller fantasy. This is a movie for the person who wants to trade a workaday life for one filled with heroics, explosions, and sex.[caption id="attachment_7820" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Motorcycles.[/caption]
Not surprisingly, Jack Ryan fails the Bechdel test. While there are several female characters, they are disconnected and they spend their screen time helping Ryan in various ways. There’s the fresh-faced girl-next-door office assistant in a Catholic-school jumper (Hannah Taylor Gordon) that Ryan’s sketchy coworker ogles around their male-dominated office. On the other end of the super secret CIA cell phone there’s the phone-sex voice that arranges for Ryan’s suite to be cleaned after the assassination attempt. There’s the icy Russian assistant (Elena Velikanova) that escorts Ryan to Cheverin’s office. There’s the token female Asian tech (Gemma Chan) in the spy van and the token black female tech (Montego Glover) in the spy plane.[caption id="attachment_7827" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Keira Knightley as Dr. Cathy Muller.[/caption]
Cathy is a mild variation of the Hollywood Strong Woman; we can tell because she insists that she and Ryan always “split the check.” While she takes to spy work with the same uncanny aplomb as Ryan, her initial motivation centers around Ryan: is he happy, is he having an affair? Eventually, Cheverin puts her in the fridge and Ryan has to step up, man up, to get her out. While annoying, this arrangement is not unexpected in the genre. Things do get creepier, however.
Ryan is obviously shaken after killing the assassin. Harper, played by Costner with all the emotion of a pressure-treated 4×4, responds by telling the story of his own first kill: an innocent woman who accidentally snuck up behind him during a mission. “Meh,” Harper and Ryan emote with standard Hollywood macho stoicism. More disturbing, while Cathy is kidnapped, Cheverin threatens Ryan by describing the nerve pinch he’s using to keep Cathy’s mouth open. Cheverin then shoves a long, pointy fluorescent bulb to the back of her throat and threatens to force her to bite down. This would cause the bulb to violently implode and fill her mouth and lungs with white glass shards. Nice.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit isn’t a feminist movie. It isn’t even a good thriller. It’s a replica of a relic from the early 90s. In fact, I liked it better in 1994 when it was called True Lies.