Are we seeing the end of the Jack Ryan film franchise? The second and latest attempt to reboot the series featuring the intrepid all-American intelligence analyst, which was quite popular in the early 1990s, is underway now, little more than three months after mega-selling novelist Tom Clancy, its creator, died unexpectedly at age 66.
The early returns aren't especially promising. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the first of the five Jack Ryan pictures not to be based on one of Clancy's many best-selling novels, is performing at the low end of reduced expectations, with a much smaller opening weekend than the 2002 reboot with Ben Affleck in the lead role.
Some spoilers follow.
Like the first three films -- The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), and Clear and President Danger (1994) -- 2002's The Sum of All Fears was based on a popular Clancy novel, albeit changed around a lot to make the villains white European neo-Nazis rather than Islamic fundamentalists. Clancy was perturbed by having his story changed -- to make it more politically correct but far less accurate about the global scene -- but the reboot was a hit and audiences accepted Affleck as the young Ryan early in his career. Just as Alec Baldwin was in Red October before he unaccountably left the role to to the more mature Harrison Ford, who played Ryan at a later stage in life.
Showing that Paramount, the studio which has released all the Ryan pictures -- and may have an emerging problem on its hands with the Star Trek franchise -- has some issues with effective franchise management, nothing happened after Sum of All Fears became a hit.
What's gone wrong this time?
Think one word: Generic.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. The title alone is problematic. What the heck is a "shadow recruit?" It's meaningless.
Fortunately, the cast is good and the film is well-done. Yet it's all too generic, and not all that true to the character of Jack Ryan.
In the novels, and the earlier films, Ryan is an intellectual, a historian, actually, a family man who reluctantly becomes an action hero. Following a post-college ROTC stint as a young Marine officer cut short by a serious helicopter accident, Ryan earns a convenient small fortune in the investment business before getting his doctorate in history and becoming a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy where he also writes books about naval history. From there, he slowly but surely slides into the intelligence field.
In the latest reboot, Ryan is presented as a grad student at the London School of Economics who joins the Marines after 9/11, only to be blown out of the sky over Afghanistan. While recovering, he is recruited into CIA, working as a covert financial analyst on Wall Street.
From there, he uncovers a nefarious plot that takes him to Moscow and a confrontation with a dangerous Russian oligarch who, working with extreme nationalist elements of the government -- former ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov, uncredited, plays the Russian interior minister -- has launched a rather silly plot to destroy the American economy. Meanwhile, this oligarch has been propping up the Chinese economy. (!!)
Chris Pine, aka Captain James T. Kirk in Paramount's rebooted Star Trek film franchise, makes for a capable young Ryan. He handles the action well, has sincerity, and as a UC Berkeley grad is smart enough to play a character who is supposed to be brilliant. Kevin Costner, who might have played Ryan himself back in the '90s but for being focused on his Academy Award-winning labor of love Dances With Wolves, is Ryan's recruiter and mentor figure, a dashing naval officer who is really a senior CIA operator. Keira Knightly makes a lovely and effective future Cathy Ryan. And director Kenneth Branagh plays the Russian super-villain. Effectively, if perhaps a tad too enthusiastically.
It's entertaining, but generic. The stakes, though very high, seem oddly weightless since they are so familiar. Yet another secret plot to wreck the American economy. In which Ryan, shorn of his historian status -- which is key to the conception of the character -- is a financial geek from the beginning. Even his first kill is familiar, reminiscent of the rebooted James Bond's first kill in the excellent Casino Royale.
The success of Casino Royale in rebooting the Bond franchise and Batman Begins in rebooting the Batman franchise led to a string of reboots that fed the wave of remakes already pumped out by Hollywood. So much so that the reboot/remake trend has become far too reflexive.
Why reboot Jack Ryan for a second time? Especially when the Clancy novels -- the latest Ryan universe novel, Command Authority, became Clancy's latest number one best-seller little more than two months after he died -- have Ryan and his family moving on through life.
In the novels, Jack Ryan himself is past the action hero stage. He's the once and again president of the United States. The action portfolio in the family is being handled by his son, a finance geek with a flair for violence and just a slightly annoying streak of entitlement: Jack Ryan, Jr. works out of a supposed investment firm that is actually an off-the-books intel/wetworks operation. The novels increasingly featuring Jack Ryan, Jr. have all been number one bestsellers, too.
Which raises an obvious question. Instead of ginning up a generic espionage tale, why not adapt one of the later novels featuring Ryan and his son? After all, an author usually knows the product of his or her work the best and Tom Clancy, while not a great writer, was a great storyteller.
Costner could easily play Jack Ryan pere. And Pine, who as the rebooted Kirk oddly becomes captain of the Enterprise before he even graduates from Starfleet Academy, has shown he is good at playing an entitled and more than a little arrogant character younger than himself.
It makes a lot more sense in terms of narrative, as well. In Harrison Ford's last appearance as Jack Ryan, he became deputy director of the CIA, ending in a confrontation with the president of the United States.
The older fans who constituted most of the opening weekend audience for the new movie can certainly relate to the continuing narrative of the hero's life. The younger audience which hasn't turned out for the reboot might be more likely to embrace a new character in the form of the son.
Jack Ryan isn't like James Bond or Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt. Those characters exist in a sort of permanent now, free from family obligations or any professional responsibilities beyond the exigencies of the operation. Since Jack Ryan is practically the opposite of that, he can age and move through life. And leave the action stuff to Jack, Jr.
The new movie has one potential saving grace from a commercial standpoint that might preclude yet another shelving of the franchise in favor of a future reboot. The production cost was reportedly "only" $60 million. Which means that even though it has no chance of hitting the $100 million mark in domestic box office, a regular occurrence in the past for a Ryan picture, it might still make its money back with a strong international showing. And it is doing better in foreign markets.
Paramount's problems in managing the Jack Ryan franchise mirror its problems with Star Trek. After a glut of Trek on television and in theaters stopped the franchise dead early in the last decade, Paramount brought mega-TV producer J.J. Abrams and his crew in to reboot things.
The result was 2009's terrific Star Trek, with Pine and a host of others capably taking on the iconic roles after the timeline is changed by a catastrophe. While there were some conceptual lapses, it didn't seem to matter much with the reboot because it was such a bravura piece, full of flash, dazzle, and smart energy.
2013's Star Trek Into Darkness was a sizable hit and did better worldwide than did 2009's Star Trek, thanks to a greatly expanded marketing effort. But even though the production budget was pumped up for the sequel, it did substantially less well at the domestic box office than the 2009 movie.
Star Trek Into Darkness, which began promisingly as a terrorism-oriented piece around the brilliant Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch as a disgruntled Starfleet officer only to devolve into a nitwit reworking of perhaps the greatest of all Star Trek films, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. With the lily white Londoner Cumberbatch as former South Asian warlord and 20th century genetically engineered superman Khan Noonien Singh!
The misstep poisoned the well around the film, especially with reboot director J.J. Abrams repeatedly insisting before the movie opened that Cumberbatch was not playing Khan.
Now Abrams, who notoriously said he hadn't watched Star Trek when he was younger because it was "too philosophical," is off making the new Star Wars. Only Bob Orci of the original Abrams-derived writing group remains for the next picture in the series.
While Paramount says the next movie will be released in 50th anniversary year 2016, it still has no director attached and no release date.
But why worry after seeing how well the Jack Ryan franchise is being handled?