There are three conclusions to draw from this reboot of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character. First, it plays like an infomercial for NSA access to, well, pretty much everything. Second, no matter how attractive the actors and how thrilling the score, there is no way to make it exciting to watch someone banging on a keyboard and staring intently at a computer screen as the “loading” indicator creeps along. Third, when spy movies run out of other ideas, they conclude that the fate of the United States and the rest of the world is not enough to hold our attention, so it must be time to kidnap the hero’s girlfriend.
Chris Pine (“Star Trek’s” Captain Kirk) takes over the role of Jack Ryan from Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck to play Tom Clancy’s egghead action hero, Jack Ryan, PhD. Bringing him up to date, we see him as a student at the London School of Economics, helplessly watching the terrorist attack of 9/11 on television, then enlisting in the Marines, being shot down, saving two of his men despite the gravest of injuries, and then, in rehab to learn to walk again, meeting two people who will change his life. One is Cathy, a pretty med student (Keira Knightly, with an American accent). The other is a guy in a suit named Harper who recruits Ryan to work for the CIA, deep undercover…on Wall Street. [Note for the record that the CIA is not allowed to do domestic spying, but okay.] I really liked the idea that the government would recognize the threat to national security from the too big to fail financial institutions, but it turns out that isn’t it. Ryan was sent to Wall Street to spy on the same old bad guys we always spy on, Russians, this time trying to manipulate our financial markets. [Insert obvious observation that we don’t seem to have any trouble inflicting massive damage on ourselves that way.]
Director Kenneth Branagh’s biggest mistake was in the casting of the villain: Kenneth Branagh. We know he’s evil because he has a sleek, spare, shiny black office and he sits there grimly, listening to an ethereal aria and beating up a guy who was clumsy in giving him a shot. Branagh seems to enjoy playing bad guys — most recently in “The Wild Wild West,” “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” and “Pirate Radio.” He’s better at playing the uptight bureaucratic type (or the self-important type as he did in “My Week with Marilyn”) than the larger-than-life bad guy needed for a Bond-style film. In fairness, the screenplay, originally written as a stand-alone and then adapted for the Jack Ryan character, lacks the Tom Clancy magic that makes his stories so absorbing, the authenticity of the technological details and the depth of character. Compare this pallid Russian bad guy and his generic compatriots to the superbly crafted, complex Soviet characters in “The Hunt for Red October,” from Sean Connery’s captain to Joss Ackland’s diplomat. The other big problem is the increasing ridiculousness of the storyline. The United States has such a crackerjack team in Moscow that we can send in the espionage equivalent of magic elves to secretly remake a luxury hotel room that has been shattered in a shoot-out/fight/drowning so that in less than a couple of hours it is like new, with just a little wet grout (and of course the removal of the dead body) to show that anything had been changed. And yet, when they need to do the one thing any spy team should learn on day one, breaking into a secure location, the only one who can do it is our boy Jack, the PhD from Wall Street? Once the break-in takes place, it just gets silly, with a lot of intent people banging on keyboards and getting instant access to thousands of data sources and a series of increasingly implausible bang bang with even less plausible banter. Ryan is the increasingly implausible Swiss Army knife of superspies, equally adept at hand-to-hand combat, stunt driving, and hacking.
You’ve got to grade January releases on a curve, and by that standard, it barely passes muster. In any other month, it would be strictly wait for DVD.
Parents should know that this film includes extensive scenes of spy-style peril and violence including chases, crashes, and explosions, guns, knives, drowning, fights, and terrorism, references to painkiller dependency and abuse and alcohol abuse, and brief strong language.
Family discussion: Does this make you feel differently about how much access the government should have to private data? What qualities make a good spy?
If you like this, try: the other Jack Ryan movies, especially “The Hunt for Red October,” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain”