The Ever-Changing Face of Jack Ryan

Houston Chronicle, 14 January 2014
By Michael Ordoņa

Could it be evidence of some ultra-top-secret weapons system that only techno-thriller master Tom Clancy knew about? This week, his fictional CIA analyst Jack Ryan will rematerialize for a fifth film, in the form of a fourth actor. What's different? As usual for the series, just about everything.

The five films have had four leads - this time nouveau Capt. Kirk Chris Pine in "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit;" four Mrs. (or soon to be Mrs.) Ryans (Keira Knightley is fiancee Cathy, an ophthalmic surgeon), and four directors (now Kenneth Branagh). The new movie even has a new name: Until a few months ago, it was known as "Jack Ryan: Shadow One."

It also has a new source: It's the first Ryan film not based on a Clancy book. Then again, considering the late author's outspoken unhappiness with aspects of some of the movies - including directors, casting and lack of fidelity to his books - it could be argued that's nothing new. Clancy once told the Washington Post that "giving your book to Hollywood is like turning your daughter over to a pimp."

His books' chronology was convoluted; the movies swerved around their timeline like a drunken Russian sub commander. That hasn't stopped them from averaging just under $200 million each in worldwide grosses on budgets of about $50 million.

"The Hunt for Red October" (1990) is still regarded by many as the best of the series, earning franchise-high Rotten Tomatoes ratings of 95 percent from critics and 89 percent from audiences. The others have averaged ratings of 72 percent and 65 percent. The film is steeped in the Cold War tension of the nuclear arms race and grippingly depicts submarine warfare.

The cast includes Sean Connery and a number of theater veterans, including James Earl Jones lending twinkling gravitas. Another stage vet, 32-year-old Alec Baldwin, brought crackling intelligence to the first manifestation of Jack Ryan. Baldwin managed to make Ryan heroic without resembling an action hero.

Baldwin's continuation in the franchise was scuttled before the sequel. Studio executive David Kirkpatrick recently wrote on his blog that "I wanted (Baldwin) to approve a script and he refused." That contradicted Baldwin's previous claims on his own Huffington Post blog that there were only what he regarded as "relatively arbitrary issues surrounding the dates of production." He then called Kirkpatrick a "beady-eyed, untalented tool" who "cut my throat."

Rather than the CIA-origin story of Ryan in the prequel book "Patriot Games," the second film took place after "Hunt for Red October," with Ryan having retired from the Company. The casting of the nearly 50-year-old Harrison Ford in the 1992 film, when its source book featured a 31-year-old Ryan, was just one of the reasons Clancy divorced himself from the production.

Ford's portrayals in "Patriot" and "Clear and Present Danger" (1994) conformed to a villain's description of the character as a "Boy Scout." Still, he didn't exactly seem like an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary situations. But then, neither did Ryan.

Clancy's creation was a promising young lieutenant forced out of the Marines by a helicopter crash. He became an independently wealthy - and presumably unfailingly ethical - stockbroker, and then such a brilliant teacher of military history, that the CIA sought his services as an analyst. He went on to rescue British royalty from an assassination attempt, battle people of immense power and withered morality, all-but single-handedly avert two nuclear wars, become president, kind of bring peace to the Middle East and steer the country through a full-on shooting war with Japan. And ... other stuff.

So it shouldn't be surprising that Ryan would also have the power to reconfigure himself as the 20-or-so-years-younger Ben Affleck and alter the timeline of his universe for 2002's "The Sum of All Fears." The first full-on reboot of the series found Ryan as a cub CIA analyst who has only recently met Cathy, all in present day.

Affleck's portrayal is serviceable, if not exactly cerebral. That's no knock on the smart actor who has become one of Hollywood's best directors; the film doesn't read as cerebral. Ryan repeatedly forgets to call for help when, say, entering a spooky warehouse where he expects to find a mass-murdering white supremacist or learning there's a nuke at the Super Bowl.

The film was profitable ($193 million worldwide), if less so than its predecessors ($68 million budget, highest of the series), and received by far the least enthusiastic responses from critics (59 percent) and audiences (50 percent). It earned most of its praise for Liev Schreiber's performance as CIA operative John Clark, a character who figures prominently in the next planned film, based on Clancy's "Without Remorse." (Most likely played by another actor, of course.)

"Shadow Recruit," meanwhile, will likely excite Clancy fans with its smart reworking of Ryan's back story in the film's opening sequence. This reboot expresses the character's driving intelligence, his heroism, his relationship with Cathy and his rookie jitters as an operative. And Branagh is fun to watch as a Russian baddie. It's infused with the only-Ryan-can-save-us moments and coincidences that fans expect, with the usual mix of techno-geopolitics and violence.

In other words, it's a worthy successor.

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