A Clear and Present Danger has long been one of my favorite films. I’ve probably seen it 30 times. I could easily watch it 30 more. It’s one of those films that I could watch at any point of any day and I’d be perfectly happy. It’s one of those films that would never get made in today’s Hollywood.
Instead, we get Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
I recall seeing the trailer last year and getting excited. Jack Ryan is back! Then I saw the reviews start to trickle in. The consensus: “meh.” I tend to stay away from “meh” in theaters. But sitting in a hotel room the other night without many other options, it was finally Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit time.
It’s not just that the movie is “meh.” “Meh” is fine. I can do “meh.” I have no problem watching a mediocre film. I do it all the time — most films are “meh.” But Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is perhaps the pinnacle of “meh.” It’s a film so spectacularly mediocre that it’s annoying. A much worse film would at least have the morbid value of watching a train wreck before your eyes.
Instead, you get to see the once-great Jack Ryan degraded into a half-assed action star. A Jason Bourne with his memory but without the ability to kick ass. A James Bond without an accent but with a girlfriend.
What made the Harrison Ford-era Jack Ryan films great is that they weren’t trying to make the character into something he’s not. He was an analyst with some field training put into extenuating circumstances. The films were clever. They had tension that wasn’t the result of pure physicality.
My favorite scene in A Clear and Present Danger is when Jack Ryan hacks into the computer of Bob Ritter, the Deputy Director of Operations for the CIA. Ryan is remotely logged into Ritter’s machine, looking for the files he needs to burn him — as Ritter walks into his own office right next door and sits down at his machine. At first, he doesn’t see Ryan logged in. Then he does. And what we have is an old fashioned mass-file-delete-off.
There is so much tension in that scene. Without screaming. Without guns. Without explosions.
When Ryan and Ritter do confront each other, they’re not martial arts experts, they’re disgruntled office workers. Ryan’s weapon is a print-out from a dot-matrix printer:
Jack Ryan: You’re going to jail, pal!
Bob Ritter: [seeing Ryan holding a piece of paper] What is that? What is it you think you have there?
Jack Ryan: You broke the law.
Bob Ritter: You are such a Boy Scout! You see everything in black and white!
Jack Ryan: No, no, no! Not black and white, Ritter, right and wrong!
In Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the best scene is when he yells at his fellow CIA analysts to check if “they hit up anybody’s Instagram, Facebook, Hopscotch, Reddit…” I mean, he really says this. It’s great because it’s absurd. I literally laughed out loud. Are the terrorists taking Instagrams? Are they on their laptops scrolling through Reddit? What the hell is Hopscotch?
Part of the issue, of course, stems from the fact that Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was the first film not based on an actual Tom Clancy book. (Incidentally, Clancy died shortly before the release of the film.) The only thing Clancy-like in the film is the name Jack Ryan.
Clancy is why The Hunt for Red October is so great as well with young, skinny Alec Baldwin playing Jack Ryan. Sadly, I don’t have a great excuse for The Sum of all Fears, which is also based on a Clancy book (though it deviates quite substantially). Well, except Ben Affleck.
The main reason I was annoyed at the end of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is because I knew that we are never going to see another Hollywood film like the Ford-era Jack Ryan flicks. They’re too thoughtful. They’re simply not slick enough. (This, in spite of the fact that a film like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is so excellent and well-received.)
Instead, we’ll get pure, unadulterated “meh.”