Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit — Christian Movie Review!
Jack Ryan — the fabled CIA analyst who has graced big screens since The Hunt for Red October in the ’80s — has returned to movie theaters. About time. In this superb spy thriller, we are treated to an origin story of Ryan. Although not a continuation of the old Jack Ryan films, it is a reboot that essentially asks the question: what if Tom Clancy’s beloved spy character Jack Ryan was moved to more modern times beginning in the 2000s? And that’s where we find him. After overcoming great adversity as a Marine at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is approached by a CIA officer (Kevin Costner) and recruited into the CIA where he stumbles into a geopolitical web that he never could have imagined. Meanwhile, he is trying to balance his covert life with the personal life he shares with his girlfriend (Keira Knightley).
Parental Guidance Issues at a Glance…
Sexual Content: Other than some brief scenes of kissing between Jack Ryan and his girlfriend and a slightly suggestive conversation between two characters at a dinner table, there is nothing to report here. The film is rated PG-13 for other reasons.
Violence/Gore: It’s a spy movie that is trying to be as realistic and plausible as possible — as any movie with a Tom Clancy character should do. This unfortunately includes the violence. While it is not graphic in an R-rated gory way, there is plenty of murder and mayhem, and it is very realistic. A character’s grossly mangled, bloody face is shown in a long close-up shot after a vehicle crash. He is alive, and we see the desperation in his eyes, which makes the bloody scene more powerful and disturbing. A man is drowned in a brutal fashion, and we see his face underwater as it happens. A character stabs a man in the stomach and rams him against the wall. Plenty of people are shot dead. A woman is choked and threatened with torture in a psychologically disturbing way because the villain describes in great detail what he intends to do and how she will suffer. A man is stabbed in the neck.
Language: One f-word and a swarm of other lesser expletives.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: A man pretends to get drunk and take pain medication for recreational purposes.
Frightening/Intense Content: Please do not take kids under 13 — even if your child is really into spy/action movies. There are quite a few intense and, to a certain degree, disturbing scenes. Also, if you’re a war veteran or a family member of one — especially one who fought in any recent wars — be warned that military violence in Afghanistan is depicted with great realism, though with PG-13 restraint. In addition, a soldier is almost paralyzed and is seen enduring the emotional, physical, and mental agony of rehabilitation. All of the scenes of violence are intense and some of them are psychologically disturbing — like the drowning scene and the scene where the woman is threatened with torture. Personally, I’m particularly sensitive to realistic depictions of drowning. I had to look away during that scene.
Entertainment Value and Film Craft
If you’re not aware, Tom Clancy was a famous novelist who wrote some of the best military/spy thrillers ever produced. He died in October 2013, and I am still grieving the loss of his writing genius. Jack Ryan was his most famous character who appeared in many of Clancy’s novels. What made his books so powerful was the extensive research he did. For his classic The Hunt for Red October, for example — which is about a nuclear submarine — he actually gained access to active nuclear submarines and conducted research directly with the crew. He didn’t Google his research, in other words. Heck, the Internet didn’t even exist when he wrote many of his finest books. Tom Clancy knew so many little details about the military and spy craft that his books never seemed like fiction. Every single one felt entirely plausible and real as if you were reading history.
Even though this reboot of the Jack Ryan franchise is not based on any of Tom Clancy’s novels, it pays its respects to him by being well-researched and plausible enough to pass as a Jack Ryan film.
And when I heard that Kenneth Branagh (Thor) was directing, I knew I had to see this movie. I am such a Branagh fan that I will pretty much see any movie that he makes, even if it’s about tomatoes growing in a garden. He is a rare gem in Hollywood because he has a complete mastery of Shakespeare. He has played numerous Shakespeare characters, adapted many of Shakespeare’s plays to the screen with fantastic success, and he has studied all things Shakespeare for decades. Why does this matter for a Hollywood film? Because it means, without fail, any movie that Branagh makes will convey a masterful understanding of human nature, which is what Shakespeare so powerfully teaches. It means that every character will have a rich, complex depth of humanity in them — even the villains — that is closer to what we find in real life. Branagh’s genius as a director, in my opinion, was why his film Thor was such a huge success. Branagh’s characters are not 2-D, as is the problem in a multitude of Hollywood films. His characters aren’t even 3-D — more like 4-D. You feel what each character feels: whether it’s the terror and adrenaline that races through a character’s veins as he has to pick up a gun for the first time and use it on another human being or the multiple layers of motivation that drives the villain to do villain-y things.
Speaking of villains, Kenneth Branagh not only directs the film, but he plays the bad guy — a Russian named Viktor Cherevin who has ice water in his veins. Branagh makes the character quietly terrifying with a countenance so chilling that the temperature changes whenever Viktor enters the scene. And Branagh’s Russian accent is absolutely perfect. He got so convincingly lost in the character that there were times I forgot I was watching Kenneth Branagh on-screen. Yet we also see fleeting moments of humanity in the villain. We see his weaknesses and moments of normalcy as a real human being that makes his sudden acts of evil that much more jarring.
Kevin Costner as a veteran CIA agent was a perfect casting choice. Costner’s weary, unimpressed, somewhat calloused performance made you genuinely believe that agent Thomas Harper had been in the CIA for decades, had seen and done terrible things that brought a quiet stoniness to his heart; and — even while the young Jack Ryan was shaking with nerves — it was just another day at the office for him. Nothing surprised him, and he seemed wearily resigned to the shadow world that he inhabited.
Chris Pine as Jack Ryan makes a wonderful spy/action star. He doesn’t have that cartoonish action star style where nothing ever phases him or gets inside his head. We see in his performance how the events have a very believable impact on his character emotionally and psychologically.
Keira Knightley as Cathy Muller was also an inspired choice. She skillfully conveys the warmth that makes Jack Ryan at home whenever she’s in his arms. Her wholesome faithfulness to Jack as a girlfriend creates a powerful contrast with the ice-cold shadow world of Jack’s employment. As her character develops and changes, Keira makes every moment absolutely believable and emotionally palpable.
All of the scenes in Moscow are fantastic. The stunning minarets and architecture of Moscow is a treat to see, and I wish more of the film had taken place there.
“Regret piles up around us like books we have never read.” This is a line uttered sincerely by Kenneth Branagh’s Russian villain Viktor Cherevin. From the perspective of film craft, the conversation that contains this line is one of the best scenes of the film. The dialogue is very literary and thought provoking, which is not surprising considering who is sitting in the director’s chair. That line also provides a powerful summary of what this film is all about on a deeper level. Although not stated overtly, the film reveals a common thread between all of the characters: regret and the wounds of the past — sometimes literally — that haunt them. The motivations of each character, even when twisted, also carry a common thread of undying loyalty towards what they view as the most precious things in life. Yes, even the villain feels a certain tenderness about the things he values the most. You feel his pain. You feel his emptiness. There is even a sadness there — not only for the villain but for his country.
The film asks a pressing question: can we ever be free from regret? The film answers with a confident “yes,” but it takes courage and selflessness to find that liberty and — as the movie so artfully depicts with symbolism — there is hope of getting past our regrets when we realize that our sins and darkness can be cast into the depths of the sea.
I’m a big fan of the spy genre, and this film holds its own against the best of them. I do wish that Branagh had been given a better, less predictable plot to work with, like one of Tom Clancy’s actual novels; but Branagh does an absolutely superb job with what he is given. I’m already looking forward to the sequel of what I expect to be a successful new spy franchise.
It’s good to see Jack Ryan back on the big screen.
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