Jack Ryan: Shadow Dullard – Look! It Moves! By Adi Tantimedh

Adi Tantimedh writes:

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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is farcically out of touch.

I only read what the plot was last week: the baddie, a Russian oligarch played by Kenneth Branagh, wants to blow up Wall Street.

That was when I started laughing at the sheer wrongheadedness: surely the majority of the audience would be rooting for him to succeed!

The rest of the audience wouldn't even begin to give a shit what happens to Wall Street.

Who thought this was a cool idea?  Is this the Hollywood 1% trying to be edgy? Is this a sop to the banks and finance companies the studios need to go to in order get investment and financing to make movies?

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The rest of the movie is still wrong on so many levels. This movie's bad guys are Russians and the first guy the hero kills is a black dude? Really, Hollywood? It's 2013 and you're still doing the whole "black guy dies first" meme?  You can kiss the support of the black audience goodbye right there, especially once everyone sees the trailer on TV, which is the only thing they would see before deciding whether to pay for a ticket.

On paper, I'm sure the movie looked like a perfectly solid project: good actors, a good director, a franchise that was a hit in the past, but the results look like the pinnacle of Hollywood mediocrity. For starters, it falls back on that common American right-wing Cold War mentality of having the Russians be the baddies.

That sudden, mild tremor you just felt is the Earth tilting on its axis from every Russian on the planet rolling their eyes and throwing up their arms in exasperation.

Pushed back from its original release date in December, this movie opens with virtually no buzz at all with just a cursory trailer and marketing campaign.  The studio has elected to release it in the January-to-March dead zone, where movies they lost faith in are released to qualify for the tax write-off.  As I write, it's already bombing at the box office, to the surprise of nobody.

While it's easy and fun to pour scorn on a poorly-conceived movie, I found myself contemplating the nature of the whole Jack Ryan franchise. It's really stranger than you think it is, for all the wrong reasons. Tom Clancy's books have always occupied a strange place in pop culture, a cozy, utterly middle-of-the-road series of right-wing spy and military thrillers that everyone has come to take for granted without being particularly distinguished or memorable despite their claims of authenticity and research.  They were amazingly devoid of any revelation or insight, offering only the most staid and banal platitudes you can already get from reading the newspaper.

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What's struck me about the Jack Ryan series is that the stories have never had the sense of urgency, the need to be read or seen. They just seemed to be… there. Nobody ever talks about how cool a hero Jack Ryan is or how great the books or movies were.  When people talk about The Hunt for Red October, they talk about Sean Connery playing a Russian submarine captain with a Scottish accent.  Nobody talks about the Jack Ryan movies, ever. Ryan himself is a complete cipher with no quirks or distinguishing characteristics, a good guy any girl could bring home to her parents. People only saw the other movies from the 90s for Harrison Ford and then instantly forgot about them afterwards. Even the novels' increasingly odd depiction of Jack Ryan as Clancy's Mary Sue, to the point of Jack Ryan giving Prince Charles marital advice, failed to generate any sense of urgency or frisson. Contrast all this to the granddaddy of the spy franchises, James Bond.  The novels themselves are not only invaluable cultural artifacts of Cold War pulp, but were records of Ian Fleming's own sexual and materialistic obsessions, with kinks, sadism, social attitudes and sheer weirdness permeating the pages. Even now, each new Bond movie continues to carry buzz, demanding to be seen, each a record of both current geopolitical obsessions and a summation of the spy genre in movies. Jack Ryan?  Not so much. The new movie seems to just land with a thud of utter cultural indifference.

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I can understand Hollywood hanging onto the rights to the Jack Ryan franchise and trying desperately to make a go of it in the hopes of getting a hit movie series out of it, but the sheer blandness of the character seems to defy their efforts.  If anything, it seems to be in video games that Tom Clancy's properties have made the most cultural impact.  Series like Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell have offered stories more complex and morally ambiguous than any books written by Clancy himself.  If anything, Sam Fisher, the black ops hero of the Splinter Cell games, is a much more world-weary, sardonic and layered hero than Jack Ryan has ever been, and has a much bigger fanbase. The plots of his games have offered more interesting and insightful commentary on geopolitical events than nearly all of Clancy's novels.

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However, I've heard that even the latest Splinter Cell game has undersold.  Now the question is whether the value of the Tom Clancy brand is as great as it used to be or if it's approaching its sell-by date, having been overtaken by the darker, more complex stories offered by the likes of 24, the Bourne series, Homeland and the rebooted James Bond?

Honestly, is Jack Ryan the spy franchise for people who are afraid that James Bond is too exciting?  Does that market even exist? I thought they just bought sleeping pills.

I'm sure some director and writer with vision could come up with a great Jack Ryan movie, but until that happens, he's going to continue to be the white bread of spy franchises.

Shadow smartarse at lookitmoves@gmail.com

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Look! It Moves! © Adisakdi Tantimedh

About Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.

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