Tom Clancy died last fall at 66, just as marketing was getting started for the new relaunch Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. It’s a pity he didn’t get to see the new film, because it’s a strong followup to The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Clancy was gruff bordering on insulting when it came to previous cinematic adaptations of his work, but the new film isn’t based on a Clancy novel — it’s an original story using Clancy’s agile hero. Here’s why the thriller author might have given the thumbs-up to how it turned out.
1. It honors patriotism and the military.
The new Jack Ryan, Star Trek star Chris Pine, plays a marine who joins the service in honor of the 9/11 attacks, which he watches on a TV set while studying at the London School of Economics. Hollywood can barely treat 9/11 with a straight face, but the scene in which the world changes for Jack, who remains respectfully silent as his resolution builds, is powerful in an understated way.
When Jack joins the Marines in response and gets badly wounded in Afghanistan, the director (Kenneth Branagh, who also plays the Russian villain) captures some of the feeling of dedication and courage that it takes to volunteer for combat, and also respects the agonizing rehabilitation process Ryan must undergo when he returns stateside.
Jack Ryan is so well-paced that two hours go by very quickly. That’s because Branagh and his screenwriters deftly keep things moving, using each scene to unveil more details about who Jack is (an economics expert recruited by the CIA to work at a Wall Street firm where he can track the cash flow of terrorist organizations while also serving as a compliance officer) and what he’s up against (a plot to kill thousands of Americans while unleashing financial hell at the same moment) in a sobering and believable way.
3. It doesn’t take cheap shots.
The notorious 2002 franchise-killer The Sum of All Fears substituted neo-Nazis for the book’s Islamist terrorists following a pressure campaign by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). It was one of the most craven instances of political correctness in recent Hollywood history, and the failure of the Ben Affleck-starring film put the character in cold storage for more than a decade.
The new reboot, despite its setting in the world of international finance, doesn’t contain even a hint of such knee-jerk liberalism and doesn’t take any now-routine casual swipes at capitalism or promote Occupy Wall Street. The only hint of snark about American capitalism is the logo of a sinister Russian corporation that seems clearly modeled after Enron’s. But then again, Enron was a corruption of capitalism and deserves the insult.
4. It’s sobering and suspenseful instead of over-the-top with stunts and CGI.
Though the climactic scene in which Jack Ryan battles terrorists in New York is well-done, as are an unexpected fight scene and a brief car chase in Moscow, those aren’t really the highlights. The movie mostly builds a case file the way a CIA analyst might. Instead of structuring the movie around action scenes Mission: Impossible–style and barely bothering to tie them together, Branagh works the other way around.
What interests this director is the intelligent people who do intel work. Jack’s alertness provides step-by-step reveals as he attracts the attention of a CIA officer (Kevin Costner), uncovers an abnormal series of financial transactions, goes to Moscow, meets the financial wizard (Branagh) plotting to send the U.S. into another Great Depression and figures out how to steal the data he needs to get ahead. Clancy’s stories were more about detail and procedure than they were about explosions, and so is the new film.
5. The Russians are back.
A true patriot like Clancy would have been dismayed to see U.S.-Russia relations getting worse, but the silver lining for Clancy as a thriller writer is that the increasing authoritarian and anti-Western character of Vladimir Putin’s kleptocracy now makes Russia again a completely plausible source for a plan to devastate the U.S. economy and kill off many innocents in the process.
Hollywood is happy to conjure up Russian villains because then it doesn’t have to take any incoming criticism about race or religion, so it’s a win-win situation. And for those old enough to remember the Reagan years and Clancy’s peak years as America’s leading thriller writer, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit feels like a return to glory days.