‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Agent’ – a throwback to good spy movies of old

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

You know how the same word can have a different meaning?

Like pot and a pot. Or grass and some grass. Or dope and a dope.

I have no idea why all my examples are marijuana-related. A vote for Georgia to go medicinal perhaps?

Anyway, when you winter-ize your home, it’s a good thing. It means you’re thinking ahead. Less draft; less money spent on your gas/electric bill.

But when Hollywood “winter-izes” a movie, it’s usually not a good thing.

It can mean:

A) The movie wasn’t deemed good enough for a release other than the dead of winter.

B) The movie wasn’t deemed good enough for a release any other time but in the dead of winter.

In other words, the winter season is no kinder to films than it is to our skin.

So far, that theory has been bourne out by what I’ve seen in the last three weeks.

  • “The Nut Job,”  an atrocious animated feature about a selfish squirrel who learns to share.
  • “Due Date,” an unholy blend of “Rosemary’s Baby” and the “Paranormal Activity” series.
  • And “The Legend of Hercules” that has so little to do with, well, the Legend of Hercules that it may as well be called “The Legend of Harry.”

Yes, there are some good pictures out there, like “The Invisible Woman,” about Charles Dickens and his late-in-life mistress, starring and directed by Ralph Fiennes, or “Her,” which opened in New York and L.A. to qualify for the Oscars, but only reached the “sticks” last week.

So imagine my surprise…delight…horror(?)…to discover that “Jack Ryan: Shadow Agent” is a good movie. A throwback to spy movies with villainous Russians. Plus, more plot elements than CGI effects. This prequel (of sorts) to the heroics carried out by Ryan (variously, Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwijn and, ouch, Ben Affleck) casts the jewel-eyed Chis Pine (the new Captain Kirk) as the young Ryan.

We see how he was recruited by the CIA (embodied with proper gravitas and a touch of steely-eyed dash by Kevin Costner). How he met his future wife (Keira Knightley, giving an odd role credibility). And how he came by some of his physical prowess (a short stint in the military).

It being Tom Clancy, we don’t learn how Ryan likes his martinis. It being the deceased Tom Clancy, this is a series re-boot with an original script by David Koepp (“Mission Impossible” series).

Ryan is introduced as a London-School-of-Economics kinda guy who joins up after 9-11.  But when Costner comes calling, he assumes his secret-agent slot in a Wall Street firm which leans more on his degree than his military background.

But then, if they left it at that,  the film would’ve starred Sandra Bullock.

Some suspicious activity on the Russian front (i.e., the Internet), means Ryan is going into the field — and going abroad. To Moscow, to be exact, where he soon crosses paths with a very smart, very cold-blooded operative, played with Old School Villain aplomb by Kenneth Branagh.

As it happens, Branagh also directed. And he’s done so with flair and the sort of  spy-games attention to detail and tension-building that recalls CIA-movie glory days (think “Three Days of the Condor,” albeit  dumbed down; it is the 21st century).

Anyway, “Shadow Agent” starts slowly, but builds beautifully.  This is a tale of espionage and good-guy CIA agents who believe in America. And a damn good thing they do since the Russkies aren’t playing fair, and are, in fact, playing terrorist games.

Still, the movie doesn’t take place in a time warp.  When Pine asks, say, about waterboarding, he’s told  by Costner, “Not my unit.”  Further, strictly speaking, Branagh doesn’t play for Putin’s team either. His loyalty is to Mother Russia, not a particular regime.

Oh, and extra points for casting ballet legend Mikhail Baryshikov as a Russian big shot. He’s speaks the language like, well, he was born speaking it.

And double extra point for placing one of Ryan’s covert meetings at the Film Forum where the movie playing is “Sorry, Wrong Number.”

Even Hitchcock would’ve chuckled.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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