Jack is back
Step back Bond and Bourne. Jack Ryan is the real hero. By James Mottram
It's been a long time since Jack Ryan was on screen. Author Tom Clancy's hugely popular CIA operative last pitched up in 2002's The Sum of All Fears, played by Ben Affleck, in a rather underwhelming attempt to reboot a franchise that began with Alec Baldwin and then Harrison Ford in the role.
Since then, the world's moved on – and so has Hollywood. Jason Bourne reinvented the movie spy, forcing even that "Cold War dinosaur" James Bond to up his game.
With this in mind, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – the fifth in the on-off series – arrives with its work cut out. Which might just be why the decision was made early to wipe the slate clean. "It's the story of how Jack Ryan became the Jack Ryan we know from the series," says Chris Pine, the actor entrusted with the role, who already has form in this area, having successfully brought us the young Captain James T Kirk in JJ Abrams' two Star Trek movies.
Certainly, the 'origin story' has worked for Star Trek, Christopher Nolan's Batman films and even last year's Superman re-telling Man of Steel. But can it work for a more everyday character like Ryan? "The interesting thing now is that it's 2014, not 1989 or 1990, so it's a different kind of American spy movie," says Pine. "You can make a Cold War movie, discerning between good guys and bad guys, more easily then. In 2014, it's a little bit more difficult. The world is much greyer."
Never mind that the character has been reborn in a post-9/11 world, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is set with an eye towards the 2008 world recession – with a plot that sees a young Ryan uncover an imminent terrorist strike against the global economy. A junior analyst for the CIA's covert intelligence office, he's sent into the field for the first time to pursue his investigation further, more brains than brawn.
"He's like MacGyver, I guess," says Pine, referring to the age-old TV action hero, who frequently escaped death using practical know-how.
"He's in a room figuring out how to defeat the bad guy. It's not because he knows any fancy tricks like Jason Bourne, or that he's super-smooth like Bond. He's like any of us would be – he's scared and he's able to be thrown off balance."
The crux of it, says Pine's co-star Kevin Costner, is that Ryan has "never killed anyone".
"For that matter, a lot of people in law enforcement have never ever fired their gun," he said. "I know an enormous amount of people in the police that have never even pulled their weapon. So he's in the world of finance. Sometimes you open the wrong door and you see what you see ... and I guess that's what this movie is, you open the wrong door and you go 'Oh my goodness!'"
While that promises to make him more relatable, it remains to be seen what Ryan aficionados make of this rebirth. Doubtless, they will approve of the fact Kenneth Branagh is not only in the cast, playing the villainous Russian businessman Viktor Cherevin, but also directing – after the Shakespearean star proved he was more than capable of handling a big-budget blockbuster when he delivered 2011's Marvel superhero yarn Thor.
But then this is the first Jack Ryan movie not to come straight from one of Clancy's novels. While the author gave his full co-operation to the project before he died last October, the script has trodden a rather torturous path – not least because it didn't begin life around Clancy's character. Originally written by Adam Cozad, as a thriller set to star Eric Bana, Paramount Studios then asked the writer to re-work it as a Jack Ryan story.
With Jack Bender, a TV veteran with credits on Lost and Alias, attached to direct, the script went through several drafts and writers – including such heavyweight scribes as Steve Zaillian, who'd penned the Harrison Ford-starring 1994 Ryan adventure Clear and Present Danger, and David Koepp, whose credits include the Brian De Palma-directed re-launch of that other espionage franchise, Mission: Impossible.
When Bender left the project, Branagh was lured on board by Paramount executives. "When I heard 'Jack Ryan', my ears pricked up," Branagh admits. "I knew the movies anyway. And I enjoy thrillers. I come from a world where characters are played over and over again – classical theatre where it's about the particular take on an individual character. There was something in the DNA of Jack Ryan that I found very gripping."
While the Baltimore-born Ryan featured in nine novels as the central character, not to mention appearing in several books across two spin-off series, Branagh doesn't seem to think it's an issue that his film doesn't have a direct source. "We have this licence – we're not one of the novels, so we can get the chance to pick a little from various strands of plot ... to be separate from some things the books hint at but the modern world can let us investigate."
Although characterising it as a "global thriller" – with scenes set in London, New York and Moscow, there's enough of an international flavour to rival any Bond or Bourne movie – Branagh admits he's most intrigued by what he calls the "knotty human dimension" that exists between Ryan, his wife Cathy (played by Keira Knightley), Ryan's CIA father figure William Harper (Costner) and his own shadowy figure, Viktor Cherevin.
Knightley, who was signing on for her first American franchise since completing three of the four Pirates of the Caribbean movies, was also taken with the way her character interacts with Ryan. "The premise is he's in the CIA and I don't know that he's in the CIA," she says.
"So the relationship problems are (about) what happens when you're living with someone with a secret but you don't know what it is. And what kind of pressure that puts on a relationship."
As for Costner, ironically he was originally offered the role of Ryan for 1990's The Hunt For Red October – the first of the preceding films, based on Ryan's 1984 debut adventure – before it went to Baldwin. "I wanted to do Hunt For Red October, I think anyone would've," he says.
"The money was extraordinary." But as it turned out, he was committed to starring in and directing Dances With Wolves – the film that ultimately won him two Oscars. "I had already given my word!"
The first sequel of his career, Costner has also potentially signed on to play Harper in a mooted adaptation of Clancy's spin-off novel Without Remorse – which deals with how Ryan's fellow CIA operative John Kelly was recruited.
"It remains to be seen how this one does. I'm not carrying this film. I'm a supporting part in this, so I haven't seen what the other one might be. I imagine there's another young handsome guy in that second one – that's how it works."
Costner admits he's pleased with the way Branagh has approached Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. "We're not wall-to-wall action – but that's what makes Ken interesting. He's like 'I don't have to do it that way'."
And the action that is in the film? "We wanted to make it feel like 'What would I do?'" says Pine. "If you had no real training, if you hadn't spent years and years studying a martial art, how would you kill the bad guy?"
Bourne and Bond watch out – Jack is back.
- Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit opens today
JACK RYAN ON SCREEN
The Hunt For Red October (1990)
The first Jack Ryan movie and arguably still the best. With Die Hard's John McTiernan directing, this claustrophobic thriller ticked all the right boxes. Not least the chance to see Alec Baldwin's Ryan go head-to-head with Sean Connery's Soviet submarine commander, who goes rogue with the nuclear Red October.
Patriot Games (1992)
Written in 1987 – though set before events of Red October – the second Clancy novel to get the big screen sheen saw Harrison Ford take over from Baldwin and Phillip Noyce step in as director. Casting Sean Bean as a vengeful IRA terrorist, there were numerous changes to the novel, causing Clancy to distance himself from the production.
Clear And Present Danger (1994)
Despite the controversies of Patriot Games, Ford and Noyce returned for this adaptation of Clancy's 1989 novel, which pits Ryan and the CIA against a Colombian drug cartel. While Patriot Games was a 'lone wolf' story, this was far more sophisticated – a global drama detailing the arrogance and abuses of political power.
The Sum of All Fears (2002)
After attempts to adapt The Cardinal of the Kremlin failed, attention turned to Clancy's 1991 terrorism tale. But Ford bowed out after squabbling with Noyce, and in stepped the chiselled Ben Affleck, rebooting it to a younger Ryan. Field of Dreams director Phil Alden Robinson took over from Noyce, but the result was tepid.