This is not the Jack Ryan you may know from the books, and this is not the Jack Ryan you may remember from the four previous films. This film is a reboot and an origin story — because that’s what you’re supposed to do these days. I don’t think anyone over at Paramount could tell you exactly what motivated this film to be made other than the vague idea of hearing the ringing of the cash register as the ticket sales poured in. But unfortunately that sort of motivation does not usually produce the most compelling of stories.
I must confess that despite my love for the four Jack Ryan films that have preceded this one, I have not been able to read the books. I came into my liking for the films in my mid-twenties and as a working man, it’s hard to find time to read books. I have every intention of reading them some day though. Suffice it to say that one of my favorite films is The Hunt for Red October. The Sum of All Fears was a pretty decent film as well. And no real complaints with the Harrison Ford installments either. So I was excited to hear about a Jack Ryan reboot. The one thing the franchise always lacked was cohesion what with Alec Baldwin playing the character once, then Harrison Ford playing him twice, and then Ben Affleck taking the role for the previous picture. So rebooting and bringing everything all together couldn’t be a bad thing, right?
Unfortunately this new film is a bit of a missed opportunity.
A Refreshing Origin Story
That’s not to say that it was an entirely disappointing film. In some ways it seems like everything that Branagh got wrong in his directorial effort with the first Thor film he got right with this one. While as I said this film is indeed a origin story, it doesn’t feel tedious. Branagh doesn’t bore us with details we care nothing about. We learn of a few of the relational difficulties Jack and Cathy are having in the past tense as the story gives us just enough details in the past to get us to the present day. This is quite refreshing and not your usual fair when it comes to origin stories.
As well Chris Pine makes a pretty good Jack Ryan. He doesn’t have quite the intensity of Harrison Ford, or the charming innocence of a very young Alec Baldwin (I know, I know), but in his own way he makes the Jack Ryan character work quite well. He has some charm, he has grit, and he has a get-it-done attitude. And while Keira Knightley’s American accent is not believable in the slightest, her character definitely is (for the most part).
And the spotlight stealing performance here is Kenneth Branagh who plays his villain with apparent relish. While I may complain that he did not live up to expectations, I would chalk that up to script problems more than performance. He surrounds himself with an air of mystery held together by bitterness.
Hard to Follow
But one of the downsides to the fast pace with which the story keeps time is that it can be a bit hard to follow. In fact there are still some plot details that I’m a bit fuzzy on as the film sped by. For instance, how exactly was Ryan able to slip into such a high security area again where the security seemed to be impenetrable? He’s stolen the villain’s ID so he can get into the scanner. But even though the security camera the guard is looking at clearly shows it’s not Branagh’s villain’s face, the guard waves him on through the security.
It’s also unclear to me exactly what Jack Ryan’s role is with the CIA and how he gets thrust into active spy status.
And speaking of unclear,what exactly is going on with the villain’s son, why he is where he is, why he is he considered dead, and more?
The Mystery of the Lack of Mystery
I think perhaps one of the most disappointing aspects of this film is its lack of mystery. It’s pretty straight forward actually. Everything is spelled out, everything is right out in the open. There’s never a question of who the bad guys are, who the good guys are, or who’s doing what. Everything is as straightforward as you please. This is a departure from the previous films and different from what the trailer sold us on. Everything in the trailer seemed mysterious, everything was hidden under a veil. There are implications that the bad guy could be Ryan’s commanding officer. Or perhaps it’s his girlfriend, Cathy. It seems entirely too easy that it’s just the guy who we knew from the moment we saw him that he was bad. But that’s exactly the way it is (I mean, come on, Kenneth Branagh walking out of a church and dramatically putting on his sunglasses? Dead giveaway!).
On the plus side, the Cathy capture scene with the CFL light bulb was pretty intense. Branagh is pretty marvelous here. But the problem is this feels like what the film has been leading up to. Jack is putting his all in saving her — chasing down the truck she is being taken away in. The scene builds with intensity and Cathy’s fate seems sure as Branagh promises to close her jaw with the bulb in her mouth which has the certainty of a cruel and painful death for Cathy. Of course, Jack rescues her by wrecking the truck and whisking her away. But though it feels like it should be the end of the film, it also does not feel like it should be because there are still matters to be dealt with. But the film felt like it ended and it never recovered. The climax of saving everyone in New York felt dull and empty.
Also, the villain is in a moving vehicle and he’s shoved a CFL light bulb filled with toxic chemicals into the damsel in distress’ mouth. So obviously wreck the vehicle to assure she crushes the glass and dies. At least that logical thing didn’t happen…
And yet again, when the villain fails to accomplish the task set to him by his superiors, his death is entirely too predictable.
But despite these issues, I did enjoy the film. It is a passable, if somewhat mediocre spy thriller. Chris Pine and Keira Knightley are welcome to come back and take a stab at another installment as far as I’m concerned. I certainly think that there’s room to build a successful franchise here.