Chuck Koplinski: Reluctant spy tale distinguishes 'Recruit'

Paramount Pictures is eager to relaunch its Jack Ryan franchise — which has been dormant since 2002's "The Sum of All Fears" — and the folks there have gone about it in a curious way.

Instead of portraying their spy as a slick agent who was born to the job and hits the ground running, Ryan is portrayed as a reluctant mole who ends up in over his head from the very start, learning the art of espionage as he goes, luck playing a greater factor toward his survival than any sort of hand-to-hand combat skills he might have.

While some might object to portraying the character created by Tom Clancy as a bit of a bumbler, I think it's a refreshing approach, in the vein of Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins." Just as Bruce Wayne wasn't born with a superhero's skill set, picking up survival skills as he gets beaten and bruised along the way, so does Ryan in "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," an intriguing and suspenseful reboot to the series that, with a solid cast and intelligent script, proves to be an auspicious start to what Paramount hopes will be a new series of films.

All the elements are here, but whether a new generation embraces the character — it's been 24 years since "The Hunt for Red October" — is another matter.

During the movie's extended prologue, we meet Ryan, first as a young man studying economics abroad in England who changes his career track after the attacks of 9/11. Enlisting in the armed forces, he quickly rises through the ranks and finds himself leading a mission into Afghanistan that goes horribly wrong, with him clinging to life before ending up in physical rehab in the States.

Not only does Ryan catch the eye of his therapist Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), but he also appears on the radar of CIA agent Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who sees untapped potential in the young man. After some resistance, he agrees to join the agency and is then placed with a Wall Street financial firm where he is supposed to monitor international currencies and report anything suspicious.

Seemingly, nothing of note happens for 10 years until Ryan sees that a Soviet firm that does business with various U.S. companies is hiding vast amounts of currency in accounts he cannot access. In digging further, he discovers that businessman Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) is behind these dealings and is intent on destroying the United States economy by orchestrating a terrorist attack and then selling off trillions in U.S. securities.

While this is not the sort of plan for world domination that's part and parcel of the James Bond films, the smaller scale of this plot lends a credibility to this movie that others of the genre lack. Moving and hiding currencies on the Internet doesn't sound all that exciting, but as scripted by Adam Cozad and David Koepp, what emerges is an ever-evolving game of cat and mouse, the stakes of which increase as the film progresses.

The film's centerpiece is a break-in where Ryan must infiltrate Cherevin's supposedly impenetrable office while Cathy distracts him over dinner. Editor Martin Walsh wrings every last bit of tension that he can out of the sequence, crosscutting between Ryan's efforts and Cherevin's ultimate discovery that he's been duped to maximum effect; one close call quickly falls on the heels of another and the result is a genuinely thrilling set piece.

If this, along with the film's climax on and under the streets of New York City, are any indication of the sort of thrills future Ryan films hold, then it could end up being a worthwhile franchise.

That's not to say that the movie is without its faults, which happen to be so glaring they threaten to undercut the entire enterprise. Branagh, who also directed the feature, proves once more that he has no eye when it comes to staging fights in close quarters. Every moment involving hand-to-hand combat is a muddle of bad camera angles, awkward movements and sloppy cutting that result in a jumble of images more likely to induce seizures than thrills.

Equally troubling is Branagh's performance. His Cherevin is composed of one worn-out malicious mannerism after another, as he does nothing but sneer and tersely spit out his dialogue throughout, quick with a witty retort. The only two notes Branagh misses are to twirl his moustache and pet a white cat in a menacing manner.

Some of the fault is with the writers as we don't get nearly enough background on Cherevin to allow Branagh to give us a fully realized character. And the relationship between Ryan and Cathy leaves far too much to our imagination. (Why have they been engaged for 10 years exactly?)

Still, the rest of the cast is admirable, Pine is effectively human amid the high-tech espionage, Knightley finds a bit more to do than just being a damsel in distress and Costner is quite good as the capable veteran who's yet to be undone by weariness or cynicism.

"Shadow Recruit" is a worthy reboot but like its main character, it and the perspective series still have a few kinks to work out.

'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit' (3 stars out of 4)

Cast: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Costner, David Paymer, Alec Utgoff, Peter Andersson, Elena Velikanova and Nonso Anozie.

Directed by Branagh; produced by David Barron, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Mace Neufeld and Mark Vahradian; screenplay by Adam Cozad and David Koepp.

A Paramount Pictures release. 105 minutes. Rated PG-13 (sequences of violence, intense action and brief strong language). At the AMC Village Mall 6, Carmike 13 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

"Due" should have never been found (1-1/2 stars). Like any ground-breaking technique that takes the cinema by storm, the "found footage" genre has run its course.

While not the first to use this approach, "The Blair Witch Project" in 1999 proved that it was an effective technique that helped reinvigorate worn-out narratives, particularly those in the horror genre. The resulting films were a mixed lot with some being quite good ("Paranormal Activity," "Cloverfield," "The Last Exorcism") while others came off as failed experiments ("Apollo 18," "Europa Report").

The latest entry, "Devil's Due" has the distinction of being the worst of the found footage films and suggests that perhaps a moratorium is needed on using this approach. While the movie has an intriguing, if not wholly original premise, directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett display a total disregard of logic while matters of continuity, which are vital to making the found footage approach effective, are ignored.

The film winds up being a pastiche of images from various sources that ultimately make little sense.

If you've seen "Rosemary's Baby," then the film will provide little in the way of surprises. Newlyweds Zach and Samantha (Zach Gilford and Allison Miller) set out for their dream honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, which soon turns into a nightmare. While some frolicking is done on the isle's sunny beaches, their final night goes wrong when a visit to a palm reader turns ugly and a promise from a cab driver to take them someplace fun goes south. Much drinking occurs at the club they end up at, so much so that they both pass out and have no idea how they made it back to their hotel room.

All of this is forgotten as Samantha finds out soon after their return to the States that she's pregnant — despite taking birth control pills religiously — and the couple prepares for the arrival of their newborn. However, the pregnancy is a rough one as the expectant mom suffers from constant nosebleeds, is always sick and has a vague feeling that something's just not right.

The fact that their chosen pediatrician goes missing and is replaced by someone they don't know doesn't bode well — and neither does the fact that strangers are repeatedly seen standing outside their house, as if they're waiting for something monumental to happen.

Taking the found footage approach to the familiar horror trope of the coming of the antichrist is not a bad idea, and a scene or two actually show promise. One of the most effective sequences proves that it is definitely a bad idea to invite a woman impregnated by the devil to a first communion, while the film's climax in which, literally, all hell breaks loose, is a keeper.

But these moments can't overshadow the fact that many of the rules of the found footage genre are broken thus leaving it impossible to be taken in by the film's conceit. Scenes taken by Zach — who is one of the most annoying film characters in recent memory, a poster boy for cloying, smothering partners — are spliced together with surveillance footage from a grocery store as well as cameras secretly placed in their house and moments from a police interrogation. No explanation for this is given and as students of this format are aware, this is a no-no.

Unless otherwise specified, all footage in these films is supposedly taken from a single source, and while I might seem hypercritical, the slow pace of "Due" left me with nothing better to do than to pick it apart.

"Ride Along" an overly familiar trip (1-1/2 stars). While I don't mean to be insensitive, I suppose that even senility has its advantages. I'm referring to having to sit through movies like Tim Story's "Ride Along" which is nothing but a collection of worn-out situations and scenes from other films. I suppose that if I had never seen or forgotten the plots of films like "Running Scared," "Tango and Cash," and "Rush Hour" — like my son Grant, who loved this movie — then I would have thought that this Ice Cube-Kevin Hart feature was ground-breaking and hysterical instead of tired and lazy.

Tell me if you've heard this one before: James, a grizzled cop (Ice Cube) is partnered with Ben (Kevin Hart), a clueless wannabe police officer who, while enthusiastic, doesn't have a clue as to how to go about enforcing the law. Oh, and they have nothing in common and they don't get along.

Yep, that's the setup: as fresh as week-old garbage that's been sitting in the August sun. The only mildly interesting element is that Ben wants to marry James' sister and that the purpose of him going on this ride-along is to prove his worth to his prospective brother-in-law.

While this formula was on its last legs when the first "Rush Hour" hit screens, the chemistry between Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan was so effective that audiences didn't mind that we were in all too-familiar territory.

It's not that Cube and Hart don't have chemistry, it's simply that their shtick becomes repetitious far too quickly and their interactions fail to provide anything special that might elevate "Ride" above the genre conventions it seems content to wallow in. Cube scowls, Hart has a spastic fit trying to show he's competent, only to look like a fool and then this cycle is repeated again and again.

Both performers were effective in other vehicles, but they're obviously going through the motions here. In addition, character actors John Leguizamo and Laurence Fishburne are wasted in roles that are beneath their talents. I have a feeling that the paychecks must have been decent. That's the only reason I can think of that any of them would lend his name to this turkey.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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