Kenneth Branagh strips back Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst turned spy for an effective prequel, then delights as its arch baddie
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (12A)
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Chris Pine, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner
Rating: * * *
Hollywood loves franchises, but actors don’t seem to love Jack Ryan. Shadow Recruit is the fifth movie to be based on the late Tom Clancy’s best-selling series about a CIA counter-intelligence analyst – and the fourth time a new actor has been brought in as the lead. Having previously been played by Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October), Harrison Ford (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger) and Ben Affleck (The Sum of All Fears), he now takes the form of Star Trek star Chris Pine, who admitted in a press conference earlier this week that the key to Ryan, compared to James Bond and Jason Bourne, was his ordinariness.
That’s a quality that the series’ previous stars didn’t necessarily embody, so it’s perhaps to Pine’s credit that in rebuilding the character from the boots up for this origins story, he projects a certain non-descript, all-American earnestness onto Ryan. Which is not to disparage Pine right out of the gate, merely to point out that in making an action hero out of an economics analyst with such an exalted sense of patriotism that he actually wants to marry his girlfriend so that he can confess all about his secret life as a CIA number-cruncher (there are rules about such things with non-spouses apparently), he’s managed to make Ryan necessarily dull in the film’s early stages without dragging the movie down.
Winding the clock back to join Ryan as a foreign exchange student at the London School of Economics, the film opens with him watching the 9/11 terror attacks unfolding on the news, then quickly jumps forward a couple of years to a combat situation in Afghanistan where Ryan, now a marine determined to serve his country, is shot down during a helicopter attack. Left with a broken back, he winds up in a rehabilitation centre, where the CIA (in the form of Kevin Costner) begins to take an interest in his previous academic work, and the possibility of a date with Keira Knightley, playing his physiotherapist, is enough to motivate him to walk again.
Ryan mythology duly established and (somewhat) updated, Shadow Recruit fast-forwards another decade to find him employed as a compliance officer on Wall Street as a cover for his real job: working for the CIA tracking large sums of money suspected of funding international terrorism. Although Shadow Recruit isn’t based on any specific Clancy novel, it’s here that the film really betrays the late author’s Cold War-forged sensibility: despite being set in a post-9/11 world, the good old Russians continue to pose the biggest threat to American security, with Ryan uncovering some financial market anomalies that suggest a deranged Soviet oligarch is trying to destabilize the US economy in preparation for some hazily explained master plan to re-assert Mother Russia’s dominance across the globe.
As it happens, this turns out to be a good thing for the film because it means that Kenneth Branagh, pulling double duty as the film’s director and its chief bad guy, can start enlivening proceedings with some entertaining movie star villainy. As the fantastically named Viktor Cherevin, Branagh certainly takes great delight in imbuing this evil mastermind with some Shakespearean sophistication and Bondian-accent work. Viktor – or Veek-tor as it’s constantly pronounced in the film – is the sort of highly motivated spy movie nemesis who articulates his twisted worldview with subtext-laden discussions of Russian literature and demonstrates his ruthlessness by threatening to do horrible things with light bulbs. He’s great fun and, in playing him with just the right level of hamminess, Branagh enables Pine to start coming into his own in the film just as Ryan starts coming into his own as a reluctant field agent: dispensing nefarious henchmen with his bare hands in luxury hotel bathrooms and executing palm-sweating security breaches on hi-tech financial firms.
As a pulpy filmmaker, Branagh, especially in the wake of Thor, has a good feel for delivering these kinds of old-school action movie thrills; he certainly understands the benefit of holding back a little and letting the set-pieces gradually escalate in size rather than starting at a ridiculous pitch and exhausting us with bigger and bigger explosions as the film goes on. As Shadow Recruit builds to its big terrorist plot showdown, for instance, the ensuing action sequence feels genuinely exciting rather than one more budget-justifying spectacle that has to be endured before the credits roll.
As a reboot, however, Shadow Recruit isn’t a particularly radical re-imagining of what has come before. The film doesn’t have real-world urgency of the first three Bourne films and the character isn’t as malleable or as charismatic as Bond. Indeed, judged against those standards – as all modern spy films must be – it feels fairly ordinary. And yet, that’s not necessarily a bad thing: like Jack Ryan himself, sometimes, ordinary can be effective.
Inside Llewyn Davies (15)
Directed by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman
* * * * *
The Coen brothers excel at putting their protagonists through the wringer of life and their latest matches Barton Fink for the surreal way it homes in on an aspiring artist (in this case a folk musician) stuck in a sort of Murphy’s Law-plagued rut from which his own misguided commitment to artistic authenticity won’t allow him to escape.
This is the eponymous Llewyn (Oscar Isaac), a one-time rising star in the pre-Dylan Greenwich Village folk-scene circa 1961. Partially numbed by the premature end to a creatively enriching partnership, Llewyn is all at sea: too emotionally dependant to sever ties with some well-meaning academics who’ve become his creatively stifling benefactors, too disengaged to commit to building something with his ex-lover Jean (Carey Mulligan), another folk singer who is furious with him for getting her pregnant, not least because she’s married to her singing partner Jim (Justin Timberlake), whose own commercially driven sound Llewyn despises.
The film takes place over the course of a week in Llewyn’s desolate-seeming life, a week during which he can’t seem to catch a break. Every choice he makes triggers another minor catastrophe and the Coens weave in little running jokes (including an extended one involving a missing cat) to provide some levity amidst the melancholy.
Bookended by an intriguingly ambiguous scene that gives Llewyn’s life the quality of a broken record, the film features a masterful, breakout turn from Isaac in the title role. He plays Llewyn as one of life’s downtrodden, a man whose only respite from the tumult in his head comes when he’s on stage.
The music – marshalled by T Bone Burnett and played live as much as possible by the cast – really is something special, with the Coens using it to subtly illustrate how Llewyn’s inability to get out of his own way inhibits his ability to benefit from his obvious talent.
That musical authenticity – which extends to perfectly parodying the poppier side of the early folk scene – is matched by the way the Coens film everything in muted greys and browns, giving a real sense of a place and yet, ironically, never bringing us any closer to a full understanding what’s going on inside their protagonist’s mind.
That’s the final joke of the film’s title, but unlike the Coen’s last original film, A Serious Man, it’s a joke undercut with tenderness and genuine regret for the way things might have been.
August: Osage County (15)
Directed by: John Wells
Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliet Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch
Perhaps on stage Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about an Oklahoma family unravelling after the suicide of the family patriarch has an edge befitting the darker undercurrents running through its plot. On the big screen, however, it’s little more than a histrionic piece of Oscar bait, an overly prescriptive melodrama in which a bunch of showboating movie stars get to overact in the company of Meryl Streep.
Not that Streep is guilt-free. If anything, most of the problems with the film stem from her four-alarm-fire performance as the half-crazed, drug-guzzling Violet, a woman whose diagnosis with cancer of the mouth is symbolically matched by the rants she unleashes on her three grown-up daughters (and anyone else within earshot). It’s as if Streep wants everyone to take notice of her outsized performance in the way that Violet wants everyone to take notice of her bad behaviour. But it’s not interesting to watch her exercise her redoubtable skills in the service of something so broadly melodramatic.
Grudge Match (12A)
Directed by: Peter Segal
Starring: Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Alan Arkin, Kevin Hart, Kim Basinger
Rocky versus Raging Bull was clearly the high-concept pitch for this boxing flick pitting Sylvester Stallone against Robert De Niro. Sadly it’s too punch drunk on its own casting coup to bother doing anything interesting with the idea. As a pair of long-since retired prize fighters whose rivalry was never fully resolved in their heyday, each actor stumbles around the film, sucker-punching us with groaning references to their respective entries into this particular sports movie subgenre while director Peter Segal pounds us with some soggy family drama that’s at odds with the crude humour deployed elsewhere (there’s a running fellatio gag that’s particularly cringeworthy).
Stallone, of course, has never had much of a feel for comedy and, having already rung the geriatric boxing bell with the endearingly sincere Rocky Balboa, it’s dispiriting to see him make fun of a series of films that audiences actually like. De Niro, meanwhile, continues his own mission to wilfully trash his legacy by re-playing Jake LaMotta’s nightclub routine with the aid of a puppet. In the end, the sight of a couple of past-it prizefighters slugging it out for a big payday becomes a potent symbol of each stars’ motivation for making the film.
Directed by: Matt Wolf
* * * *
Based on punk writer Jon Savage’s tome of the same name, this experimental documentary offers a fascinating insight into the birth of the teenager as a social construct by exploring the way in which youth was shaped by and helped shape the early 20th century.
Eschewing a dry, after-the-fact overview of the period in favour of first-hand accounts culled from contemporary diary entries and sociological studies, director Matt Wolf combines archival footage and nimbly assembled historical reconstructions with disembodied voice-over narration (courtesy of actors such as Ben Whishaw and Jena Malone) to put us as much as possible in the historical moment.
The results are fairly illuminating, showing how, for instance, the sudden acknowledgement in the early 1900s that children went through a separate stage of development before adulthood created an irrational fear of youth. (No longer prematurely forced to join the workforce, kids suddenly had time to develop thoughts for themselves – a terrifying concept for adults.)
The film is particularly interesting when the perspective switches to Germany in the inter-war years, showing how, under the Nazis, the country’s youth went from being vilified to venerated, only for the Hitler Youth to reveal itself to be the enemy of everything that being young was supposed to represent.