Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a Bourne movie without the showpiece action scenes, the quirky characters, or the carefully layered narrative. There’s plenty of Bourne-like vehicular mayhem, and a ferocious close-quarters fight scene, too; but little of it is new, and its familiarity reminds us how much more distinctively this sort of thing was done in those earlier films. Shadow Recruit isn’t a bad movie – director Kenneth Branagh has constructed a professional piece of tech-thriller product – but it’s clouded throughout by an air of insufficiency.
The four previous Ryan movies – which starred Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck as the resourceful CIA intelligence analyst – were based on Tom Clancy’s bestselling novels. This one isn’t. Now Ryan is played by Chris Pine, an actor whose default expression of drooping uncertainty seems wrong for the role; and his character has been inserted into a tale devised by screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp. The story hinges on a sinister Russian banker named Cherevin (Branagh, with a thick accent that’s pure Pottsylvania). Cherevin nurses a bitter grudge against the United States, and is plotting a terrorist attack on Wall Street (no cheering, please) and the destruction of the American economy. The movie is therefore heavy with talk of international finance, which is not especially thrilling, and further lumbered with the usual ratta-tap computer wizardry.
The picture appears to be an attempted reboot of the Ryan franchise (the last film, The Sum of All Fears, came out in 2002). And so it gets underway, rather slowly, with a backstory montage. We meet Ryan studying for a Ph.D. at the London School of Economics in 2001. Jolted by 9/11, he joins the Marines and is deployed to Afghanistan, where we see a helicopter on which he’s traveling blown out of the sky by a barrage of choppy editing. Shipped back to the States, he regains use of his limbs with the help of (this is a little unclear) an aspiring ophthalmologist named Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley). Then a CIA honcho named Harper (Kevin Costner) turns up to recruit Ryan for duty on Wall Street, where he’ll monitor the funding of worldwide terror networks.
Ryan agrees, and before long his attention is drawn to Cherevin’s fiscal machinations. Ryan and Harper take off for Moscow, where they’re soon joined by Cathy, who doesn’t know Ryan is a CIA agent (they’ve now been together for three years). There’s much cat-and-mousing with Cherevin, and a good scene in a fancy restaurant where Cathy distracts the silky financier with flirtatious small talk while Ryan slips away to do improbable things with computers. There’s also some business with a Russian sleeper agent, a very old-school ticking time bomb, and a vital algorithm. Dazzling Harper with his higher-ed erudition, Ryan says, “We’re looking at the Panic of 1837!” Harper says, “We still need this algorithm!”
This sort of picture really requires the dash and charisma of a full-bore movie star in the lead. Pine isn’t there yet, and he’s outclassed by Costner’s easy warmth and old-pro line readings. And while Branagh is of course an excellent performer, he’s not really a “movie star” either – murmuring his dialogue (“America vill bleed”) through tightly compressed lips, he seems more like a ventriloquist in search of his dummy than a world-class villain. The actors go through all the motions of genre intrigue, but the movie goes nowhere new.
Big Bad Wolves
A torture-porn comedy about a murderous child molester sounds like an appallingly bad idea. But the Israeli film Big Bad Wolves is disturbing in a complex way, and it doesn’t exploit its hideous subject for sicko laughs (the humor is generally unrelated to the atrocities, and tucked in around the edges of the story).
In an unnamed city, police are desperate to catch a man who has been abducting little girls, sexually molesting them and leaving their decapitated bodies to be found by horrified passers-by. A detective named Micki (Lior Ashkenazi) has been assigned by his chief, Tsvika (Dvir Benedek), to lean on the prime suspect, a mild little Bible-studies teacher named Dror (Rotem Keinan). Micki and some colleagues take Dror to an abandoned factory to beat the truth out of him, but through bloody lips he insists on his innocence – he’s the father of a little girl himself.
Micki’s brutal interrogation of Dror is surreptitiously captured on a phone camera by a passing kid, and when the video appears on the Internet, Micki is bounced off the police force – although Tsvika obliquely suggests that he stay on the case. Micki does, and soon learns that the hapless Dror is also being stalked by a man named Gidi (Tzahi Grad), the prosperous father of the killer’s latest victim. Gidi wants to interrogate Dror himself, in a much more vicious way, and he has rented a remote woodland cabin for the purpose. Overpowering both Dror and Micki, Gidi transports them to this hideaway, brings out a collection of torture implements in the basement, and quickly gets down to business.
The movie isn’t a mindless Hostel-style shocker, but the writer-directors, Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, don’t flinch from showing us the bone-smashing violence inflicted by Gidi on the bound and helpless Dror (who continues to deny any part in the murders). Some of the most disconcerting images, however, are non-graphic. There’s a shot framed behind the legs of a dead girl who has been tied to a chair, with her underpants pulled down below her knees; and an electric scene in which a real estate broker, compelled to demonstrate the soundproof quality of Gidi’s basement, lets out a mounting series of screams while Gidi listens upstairs. (Here and throughout the movie, Haim Frank Ilfman’s dark score is frightening in its own right.)
The humor that crops up throughout the film seems odd at first: Gidi is distracted from tormenting Dror first by a phone call from his doting mother, and then by the arrival of his father (who plays an unexpected part in the proceedings). But as eventually becomes clear, the movie is really about the spiritual corrosions of vengeance and paranoia – about Israel itself. (Gidi’s cabin was cheap to rent because it’s surrounded by Arab settlements; a young Arab man passing by stirs Gidi and Micki to instant suspicion, and he shakes his head in gentle dismay.)
Quentin Tarantino pronounced Big Bad Wolves “the best film of the year” a few months back, which may or may not be an endorsement, depending on your experience with cult-movie hyperbole. But it’s an audacious film (it ends with a supremely eerie image), and a major step up for its creators, whose first feature was a straight low-budget gore flick called Rabies. If not the best film of the year, it’s definitely one of them.
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