Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
The Pitch: We don’t need another hero. Let’s just reboot one of the old ones again.
The Review: We love spy movies, don’t we? From the suave sophistication of James Bond to the amnesiac thrashings of Jason Bourne, we can’t get enough of secrets, lies and organisational subterfuge. For some reason, the adventures of Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst Jack Ryan have never quite caught the imagination of cinema audiences to the same extent: The Hunt For Red October is fondly remembered, but Alec Baldwin was quickly replaced by Harrison Ford, and subsequently nearly a decade passed before the series and the character were rebooted, this time with Ben Affleck. As more than a dozen years have elapsed since The Sum Of All Fears, Paramount clearly felt Ryan was ripe for another reboot and this time Chris Pine’s been enlisted to protect, to serve and to sneak into darkened rooms late at night. Where all of the previous Ryan’s have used Clancy novels as a starting point, this latest Ryan adventure follows that other, more recent movie tradition: the origin story.
Part of the reason for avoiding the rest of Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels is that most of those not yet adapted deal with terrorist attacks leading to Ryan becoming president, ending up at war with Japan and someone flying a plane into the U.S. Capitol building. It’s maybe an uncomfortable irony that Shadow Recruit opens with Ryan studying at the London School Of Economics when 9/11 happens and encourages him to enlist. One major helicopter accident later and Ryan is recovering in hospital, being goaded back to health by student medic Cathy (Kiera Knightley) and visited by, you guessed it, shadowy military type Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) who secretly recruits him into the CIA. Ryan uncovers evidence of dodgy Russian goings-on and is dispatched to Moscow to investigate further, only to come up against the henchmen of businessman Viktor Cheverin (Kenneth Branagh), bent on sending the world into a financial meltdown which will see Russia come out on top.
Branagh both nibbles on the corners of the scenery and directs, but it’s difficult to see any innovation in either. Working from a script by Adam Kozad and David Koepp, Branagh has crafted not so much as a throwback spy thriller but one that’s stuck back, somewhere in the Sixties. While the overarching plot machinations have a distinctly modern twist, with Russian dealings in the economy rather than the arms race of the Cold War, the CIA apparently hasn’t moved on past men being passed documents in darkened cinemas or exchanging looks and guns on poorly lit park benches at night. If you’re looking for an honest to goodness, old fashioned spy thriller, then Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit certainly fits that bill. Sadly, it fits it so well that there’s very little which will surprise you if you’re a fan of the genre, and most of it’s been done better elsewhere.
Take the highlight of the film, which consists of a central stretch where Ryan attempts to invade a building and capture info while the rest of his team work distraction and cover: it’s Mission: Impossible but without the dangling wires and suspense, and it segues into a car chase notable only for the odd decision to threaten a victim with a light bulb. An early bathroom fight recalls the opening of Casino Royale, the car chases have more than a touch of Bourne and the climax feels like a thousand other generic action movies that you’ve seen before (topped off with an explosion that feels cut and paste from a Die Hard sequel, of all things). Chris Pine feels more at home playing blue collar workers and starship captains than he does as a CIA analyst and spy, and it doesn’t help that he has zero chemistry with Keira Knightley either. Kevin Costner is good value, although never gets out of third gear, and Branagh’s strangulated Russian vowels are never less than entertaining, but this is undemanding and generic fare. Maybe it would be best to shake things up with an intercontinental war, for this retro thriller has at best retro thrills.
Why see it at the cinema: The larger set-pieces will benefit from being seen in a cinema, but it’s not massively cinematic. No-one would fault you for waiting for the DVD.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate violence, injury detail and one use of strong language. Spying is still, it would seem, a fairly civilised pastime.
My cinema experience: A packed Friday night at the Cambridge Cineworld, and as I was seeing a double bill of this and Lone Survivor I felt the need for sustenance in the form of that classic combo, Diet Coke and Maltesers. Sadly in my desire to get fed I managed to miss the first 30 seconds or so – and end up having to sit almost in the front row – after barely twenty minutes of ads and trailers. Still, you won’t hear me complaining too much.
The Score: 5/10
Review: Star Trek Into Darkness 3D
The Pitch: Boldly stalling where no one has stalled before…
The Review: In 2009, a bold new vision for one of sci-fi’s most established franchises warped onto our cinema screens, with enough lens flare to blind Galileo and with a cocksure young cast breathing new life into established roles. Four years on, and more time has elapsed since than the original Kirk and Spock even managed of their five year mission, but Starfleet’s most inexperienced crew – in Starfleet’s newest and most expensive iShip – are still kicking their heels, picking up the odd mission to exploding volcanoes where they can, but still waiting for an extended mission to truly test their talents. With their off-screen leader about to defect to the Dark Side, this could conceivably be the last big-screen adventure under the current leadership, so you’d hope that a four year gap would have given writers Bob Orci, Alex Kurtzmann and Damon Lindelof chance to imagine a truly epic adventure, giving the cast chance to take their old roles in new directions and to make the most of the opportunity that the success of their reboot had given them. If that’s what you were hoping, prepare to be sorely disappointed.
Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) Mark 2 might have spent a year serving with each other, but their team work still leaves a little to be desired. After a mission to a primitive planet goes somewhat awry and the Prime Directive is broken, Kirk finds his captaincy removed and Spock reassigned. But when the Federation comes under attack seemingly from one of its own, a trip to the Klingon homeworld reunites the feuding officers and sets Kirk on a collision course with the powerful, er, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). It’s a mission which will test Kirk and Spock’s loyalty, sense of honour and occasionally some of their other crew members as well, but only occasionally. To say any more would
deprive you of the opportunity to feel angry and disappointed when you watch it for yourself spoil the major plot twists the film has tried to keep up its sleeve for the past two years.
Much of the joy that resided after the first film was the sense of potential of a universe where literally anything was now possible, where writers seemed willing to take risks, and where rules seem made to be broken. So to see the second film in the series squander that potential so ruthlessly is desperately disappointing, the plot an amalgam of regurgitated elements from at least three different Star Trek TV or film series and the direction based simply on generating enough momentum to attempt to skirt over the massive plot holes. There was a feeling when Star Trek: Enterprise ended that after nearly 700 episodes, Trek might have finally run out of ideas; that’s not only a fault of poor writers, it’s blatantly untrue as the last season of Enterprise was packed full of interesting stories using the wealth of established worlds the series had created (but by then everyone had stopped watching anyway). To see the Klingons reduced to faceless cyphers in service of a hopelessly rehashed plot does show that this creative team cares little about motivations and even less about the intelligence of its viewers. It also suggests that the trilogy of writers have run out of ideas after precisely one film, never mind 700 episodes, and in attempting to pointlessly honour what’s come before – when the whole point was that this crew no longer needed to – the narrative simply disappears up its own impulse engine in the most convoluted and uninteresting way possible.
Most of the science of the film is written by idiots who would likely electrocute themselves if required to rewire a plug. To a certain extent, the previous film suffered from the same problem, but the characters and plotting were compelling enough that one could feel inclined not to pay that a huge amount of attention. With the plot running in dull circles, the characters are now poorly served: Cumberbatch’s Harrison is all growl and no menace but still acts everyone else (including poor Chris Pine) off the screen, Peter Weller’s stern admiral fares little better and Alice Eve is now infamously misogynised by the shot in her underwear, adding little else of interest. None of the Enterprise crew develops in any way or makes any more of an impression than last time around, most of the action set pieces are throwbacks to earlier movies (from Generations to Star Trek itself) and the plot grinds any attempts at believability into a literal magic sprinkling dust with which the film is liberally covered. About the only element I can offer unreserved praise for is Michael Giacchino’s score; a couple of the action set pieces are exciting, if lifted from earlier films, but any sense of jeopardy goes out the window very early on. There’s a great cast at the service of any other director who’s like to take up the reins (hint, hint) but for now I’m fearful that if left unchecked, J.J. Abrams might be about to ruin another major franchise – and when most people thought George Lucas had fair ruined that one already, I fear for the state of cinematic sci-fi in years to come if this is the best we’re capable of.
Why see it at the cinema: Sure, the little bits of whatever that blue stuff is in the warp trail sure do look pretty, and on the cinema screen you should be able to tell the current London landmarks from the fake new ones, but given that this was partly filmed with IMAX cameras everything after the prologue feels remarkably small scale.
Why see it in 3D: For the love of Kahless, just don’t. Into Darkness isn’t just a subtitle, it’s incredibly descriptive, and when the shots are edited for 2D and filmed in darkness, wearing the indoor sunglasses is an incredibly frustrating experience, to the point where I took mine off if all of the characters were in the foreground. See it in 2D only.
What about the rating: Rated 12A for moderate violence and threat. A mite swearier than most previous Treks (possibly excepting the first two Next Gen efforts), this is fairly standard action fare and anyone who can normally cope with a 12A should have relatively few problems here.
My cinema experience: A pretty packed Saturday morning showing at the Cineworld in Bury St. Edmunds. I managed to arrive around 25 minutes after the advertised start time, by which time the prologue was well under way; thankfully, having seen it before The Hobbit last year, I missed nothing. A massive queue at the ticket machine caused me to collect my ticket at the concessions counter (note to all Cineworld staff everywhere: my Unlimited card might be nearly as old as you are, but it still swipes fine in every one of your multiplexes). A packed audience (packed for a Saturday morning, anyway) sat largely silently through the movie which had little in the way of projection or sound issues, other than the 3D issues which were no fault of the cinema.
The Score: 4/10
Review: This Means War
The Pitch: Mr and Mr and Miss Smith.
The Review: If ever there were two genres guilty of falling back on high concepts, then it’s the rom-com and the action movie. Die Hard On A… movies and Four Weddings knock-offs are two a penny, and This Means War is not the first time that the action movie and the rom-com have been made into strange bedfellows. But This Means War is also the melding of two high concepts into one vertigo-inducing idea: what if James Bond and Jason Bourne went head to head. Who would win? But what if they weren’t just competing in the field, but in the bedroom as well? It does require the two concepts to be merged in such a way that’s not only fair to both, but also allows room for each to breathe. Can you make a film that’s both a good rom-com and a good action movie?
No; at least, not if This Means War is anything to go by. There are three main elements to This Means War, and considering each in tone it’s the com of rom-com that comes off by far the best. Reese Witherspoon is an old hand at this kind of thing, and has a light touch for the material, even if the film does it’s best to make her look as if she’s an international-class trollop. It’s her lightness of touch that makes long sequences watchable, but also her pairing with Chelsea Handler makes much of the film more tolerable. Handler gets the majority of the best lines, and isn’t in the slightest hindered by the fact that she plainly can’t act (early scenes have the feeling of her reading from an autocue – bady – before she hits her stride later on), but her spunky energy keeps the film afloat during the com elements. Hardy and Pine get lots of banter, but only the occasional opportunity for out and out comedy, and it’s a shame there’s not more scenes allowing them to riff.
The rom, however, is where things start to go pear-shaped. This Means War wants to have its cake, eat it and have sex with it, so we’re left with two competing rom-coms as Tom and Chris both attempt to woo Reese for themselves. Sadly, the way that the competing romances are structured, neither comes off as even remotely believable, full of people reading lines from a script that would just about pass for drama students in an improv but would never be said by real people (or even characters in a good rom-com). Consequently it’s impossible to root for either protagonist; the shouting and recriminations that normally sit in the second act of the rom-com are so predicable, you could set your watch by them. Worse than that, though, is that the set-up of the first fifteen minutes means that there’s only one way this is ever going to play out, and despite rumours of multiple endings, the one which panders to all of the lowest common denominators is the one you’ll get to see.
Then there’s the action element, which is nothing short of disastrous. Just three action sequences, at beginning, middle and end; the first is so badly shot it’s impossible to discern anything that’s happening, the second is edited so choppily that any excitement is drained out of it, and the last actually shamelessly rips off other, better action movies before simply giving up and resolving all of the obvious plot threads from earlier on. Put simply, This Means War is an insult to your intelligence on a number of levels, presenting a film where two characters need to get together that has such a random view of basic morality that the inevitable and predictable outcome is actually the last one you’ll want, but also spoonfeeding you action scenes so utterly unwatchable and lacking in originality that if being asked to sit through them doesn’t make you angry, I might politely suggest that you need higher standards. Director McG and writers such as Simon Kinberg have all worked in these genres before, and everything from the hyper-kinetic Charlie’s Angels films to the disturbingly similar in concept and execution Mr and Mrs Smith make this feel nothing more than a sequel subject to the law of diminishing returns. Hardy and Pine are both on an upward career trajectory after years of hard graft in the business, but let’s hope this is a blip and nothing more.
Why see it at the cinema: Not for the action sequences, which are a shameful affront to at least two of your senses, but for the comedy; at least if other people are laughing, there’s a chance you might feel like joining in.
The Score: 4/10
Always Read The Fine Print
I’ve always been a fan of action movies, but as I’ve gotten older my tastes have broadened out. I can’t imagine the 14 year old me being interested in Mike Leigh or Michael Haneke, but the 14 year old me didn’t like broccoli or chicken either, and thankfully I’m now able to watch more mature movies and eat Nando’s. But the action movies of my teen years were missing one thing that today’s explosionfests have, and that’s proper actors.
The likes of Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and Stallone might have all become icons to a generation, but (possibly Stallone excepted) they’ve never been renowned for their thespian skills. So the idea that we can live in an enlightened 21st century where people renowned for their talent as well as their ability to look good rolling around on the floor while firing two guns fills me with joy. The idea of a film where Tom Hardy and Chris Pine, the soon-to-be-Bane and the hopefully-will-be-again-Captain-Kirk in an action film, even an action comedy, makes me feel like we’re living in a more enlightened time, where films can be the best of both worlds. Eat your heart out, The Renaissance.
But while it sounded great in concept, the trailer that was released this week seemed to be lacking something. Actually, the poster on iTunes that accompanied the trailer wasn’t great – Pine and Hardy look like they’re auditioning for a Twilight remake and Hardy not only looks like he’s sporting a failed comb-over but has the dead-eyed look normally associated with bad motion capture, possibly because the photo was taken after he signed his contract. Things were looking up in the trailer – for at least the first thirty seconds or so, which looks to have all the requisite explosions, moody looks and men and cars diving off high places. But then…
Two minutes of mirth-free, cringe-enducing mugging follow. Jokes fall so flat you imagine that the CGI budget’s been spent on removing the tumbleweeds and the kind of embarrassing set-ups that make even Jennifer Lopez rom-coms look the height of sophistication. Yes, at one point, the dastardly Tom Hardy shoots Chris Pine with a tranquilliser to cause him to fall asleep mid-date. Oh, the hilarity. If you’ve recently had any kind of surgery in which you had to have your side split in order to reach internal organs, rest assured that nothing in this trailer will leave you in any danger of your wounds re-opening or those stitches coming out.
So what could possibly have gone so wrong? I watched the trailer again, in the forlorn hope that actually I was in a bad mood, and that this was a quality action comedy which I had just misjudged, but no, it unfortunately looks so toe-curlingly desperate that it could set the careers of both its stars back five years. But on re-watching the trailer, I noticed one very small name in the end credits.
If you still don’t believe me, watch here, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
McG’s Spot The Difference Game
Here’s a pitch for you: two spies wage special-ops war on each other when they fall for the same lady. Sound OK? That lady is Reece Witherspoon. Sounding better? Chris Pine is one of the two spies. Still on board? McG is the director. No, wait, come back…
Seems that McG has been playing spot the difference with the above two actors, who were the options for the remaining spy role. If you want to play McG’s Spot The Difference at home, the answer is after the jump below.