The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Written by Joseph Oldham.

Photo from the article A film which reboots a well-known spy action series can be seen to promise not simply an engagement with the geopolitical concerns of 2014 in the tradition of the spy story, but also an adaptable format with the potential to tell many such up-to-the-minute stories over the coming years. In this Alternate Take, I aim to situate Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit in relation to developments in the spy action genre over the last decade or so and how the genre has adapted to engage with shifting anxieties on the global stage.

In the 2000s, the ‘war on terror’ provided the central cultural hook for the most full-blooded revival of the heroic spy genre since the 1960s. As I noted in my short review, Shadow Recruit carries the vaguest ghost of the ‘war’ with a new origin story for Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) that opens with 9/11 (so often presented as a ‘Year Zero’ for any given thriller narrative with terror themes) and passes through the Afghanistan War. Yet there’s a strange arbitrariness to this introduction, which feels like it might be a relic from an earlier draft of the script with an entirely different main narrative. Although it certainly explains his physical combat skills, neither 9/11 nor Afghanistan has any noticeable impact on Ryan’s character, actions or attitudes, with both receding rapidly into the background after the film’s opening act. The climactic plot by the film’s villain, Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), to detonate a bomb under Wall Street is defined in dialogue as an act of ‘terrorism’, but as an idea this is terrorism stripped down to its most basic form as valuable to the Hollywood cinema, i.e. the threat of a big explosion at the climax, and long-since disconnected from any notional ‘clash of civilisations’ between the West and Middle East. Although Shadow Recruit is hardly innovative in this respect, I think this is symptomatic of a broader cultural burn-out with ‘war on terror’ stories, which comes not only due to a decline in support for the ‘war’ but also due to the fact that, in terms of the thriller’s narrative style and voracious appetite for twists and surprises, such immutable Manichean conflict narratives simply aren’t as compelling as they might have once appeared.

The main narrative here concerns a rather abstract economic plot from Russia to engineer a second Great Depression. This seems to be part of a general trend of more recent heroic spy fiction to return to grand narratives of nation vs. nation that characterised the genre in its Cold War heyday. That emergent nations such as China and Russia can now be positioned as narrative equals to the USA undoubtedly reflects anxiety of American decline and suspicion directed at the emerging nations that might appear to be poised to take its place. In this landscape, Russia emerges as a particular point of fascination - having also recently been the focal point of A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) - as both a current, topical ‘threat’ and also one of the key sites of the genre’s Cold War heritage and tradition (that is nonetheless more readily available for Hollywood-scale location filming than had ever previously been the case). The underlying anxiety concerning American decline is particularly evident with the use of Wall Street as the target for the villains. This is not an entirely new idea, with Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) as a notable precedent, yet the spectacle of this particular national Achilles' heel coming under attack not from rogue criminals but from an emerging nation is revealing as to the contemporary sources of paranoia.

Unlike the USSR faced by an earlier Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) in The Hunt for Red October (1990), this Russia is an entirely capitalist beast, described by Rob Behringer (Colm Feore), Jack’s boss in financial services, as a gigantic ‘corporation’. This is much like the representation of modern China, which fits a richly traditional role in spy fiction of the capitalist West’s grotesque and exaggerated alter-ego. Indeed, it’s striking how much earlier spy fiction that ostensibly took place against the Cold War was essentially about Westerners curbing the worst excesses of their own culture, most obviously in the countless millionaire James Bond villains with private armies and lush opulent lairs. As a threat, the USSR seems to have been more productively served by more existential works such as those by John Le Carré, which eschewed sensationalism in favour of detailed puzzles, and even then tended to reach conclusions that emphasised the futility of the conflict. However, for the action-based heroic strand of the spy genre, thwarting rogue excessive capitalists has generally proven to be the greatest source of heroic agency, providing as it does a narrative that can be readily and repeatedly won.

Shadow Recruit therefore gives us a not-uncommon convergence of some of the action spy thrillers biggest concerns from the last few decades: an old enemy from the Cold War combined with the capitalist West’s longstanding fear of its own excesses, performing an explosive act which can superficially be described as ‘terror’. There is, however, a fourth path that the film does not go down, and that is conspiracy. As I have previously written, the merging of the spy and conspiracy genres has proven perhaps one of the most interesting ideas in play for both traditions in recent times, as they respond to the ever-accumulating evidence of sinister activities in the intelligence world and mismanagement of the ‘war on terror’. Against this climate, the Jason Bourne films managed perhaps the most elegant instance of this convergence to date, providing the agency of a heroic supercharged individual in the tradition of the former whilst also acknowledging our ever-growing culture of conspiracy by positioning him in opposition to sinister government maneuverings. This may be an exceptional case that takes particular skill to balance, and an attempt to port a vision of large-scale Establishment corruption into the James Bond series with Quantum of Solace (2008) proved a much more awkward fit.

In the firmly heroic model of Tom Clancy’s novels, Shadow Recruit has little interest in such an interpretation of politics, proving wilfully traditional in its depiction of the CIA as a paternalistically benevolent organisation. When, on his recruitment, Ryan briefly raises decades of intelligence scandals, torture, rendition etc., this is briskly brushed aside by his superior William Harper’s (Kevin Costner) claim that such things are ‘not by my unit’. I’m not saying I argue with this creative decision; I wouldn’t want every spy film to be couched in conspiratorial paranoia and think that a role definitely remains for light-hearted escapism in the genre. However, there’s something very striking about the way this possibility is so conspicuously closed down, particularly considering that, in another context, the use of an economic-themed plotline could provide a brilliant basis for a conspiracy narrative. Personally, one of the things I find most terrifying about the current economic crisis is the lurking fear that the basic building blocks of society have been on some level designed to be as obtuse to the layperson as possible. In the heroic spy tradition, however, Shadow Recruit provides reassuring heroic agency not only to traditional action realms such as car chases and bomb disposals, but also casting its protagonist as a man with a PhD in economics. The problem with this is that it constantly threatens to give Ryan a much higher level of comprehension of the plot than the audience resulting too often, as I indicated in the review, in a lot of high-octane jargon shouting. Admittedly, the issue is at least acknowledged in the humorous moment when Harper asks Ryan to explain things in terms understandable to someone who doesn’t have a PhD.

I must confess to being a bit of a novice to the world of Jack Ryan. The reading of the character I’ve come to whilst preparing for this article is of an US James Bond equivalent with all the irony removed and replaced by raw American exceptionalism.

This is enhanced by the slightly mind-blowing detail that in later Clancy novels the character ascends to the US presidency (reluctantly, of course), providing the most entertainingly po-faced conflation of political power and action heroism imaginable; an equivalent destiny for Bond is inconceivable. There thus emerges an interesting tension between rebooting a character embodying the self-confidence of what was, for most of his literary and filmic life, the world’s only superpower, with a narrative that is otherwise saturated with American declinist paranoia, even as any moral decay at the political centre is glossed over. Of course, this is far from unprecedented; the spy as a compensatory fantasy for a political reality of decline on the international stage is the position that Bond has occupied since his creation in the 1950s, and in the long-term future Ryan stories may be forced to cast him in a similar role. But here in 2014, the lack of much overt acknowledgement of its own declinist themes might be why I personally found Shadow Recruit so flat and uninvolving.

Shadow Recruit brings together a number of geopolitical anxieties and recent generic developments in the action spy film, anchored and addressed by the prominence of heroic individual agency according to the genre’s longstanding tradition. None of these elements are developed in a way that emerges as particularly new or distinctive in relation to other similar films in recent years, though it nonetheless reveals some interesting trends in the genre’s development. Of course, it is important to consider the question of whether there is anything actually wrong with being ‘just’ an entertaining action film that only superficially uses ‘ripped from the headlines’ issues as a starting point for set piece-driven storytelling. Yet as Shadow Recruit seems to aspire to be the start of a new franchise, it is hard not to feel that it should be aiming for a more decisive and distinctive intervention in the genre, presenting something a little fresher than such reheated conventions.

This Alternate Take was published on March 17, 2014.

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