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Born from novels of Tom Clancy, CIA analyst turned operative Jack Ryan has had a string of stars portray him on the big screen, from Alec Baldwin in The Hunt For Red October, to Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, to Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears. But with more than a decade passing since the last of these, the beloved hero is at long last returning to theaters in the Kenneth Branagh-directed Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. And who better to take on that role than Star Trek's Captain Kirk, Chris Pine?
At a special event in New York City, Paramount Pictures invited journalists to watch 17 minutes of the finished film, which will hit theaters early next year. Pine himself had flown in from Los Angeles to emcee the screening, and was on hand to answer questions. "Jack is really an analyst," Pine offered in his introduction. "He can get physical, but is much more comfortable behind the scenes." He went on to point out that Jack Ryan is no James Bond, who is never anything but cool in the face of certain death. Pine stressed that instead Ryan is a pretty normal guy thrown into an extraordinary situation, and this was quite clear in the first clip.
The scene began in a bustling airport in Moscow. Jack Ryan (Pine), dressed in a sharp suit, introduces himself to Embee, a Ugandan bodyguard/"fancy driver" who has been tasked with watching out for him while he's in Russia. Nonso Anozie plays the jovial driver, and Game of Thrones fans will know him as Xaro Xhoan Daxos, the duplicitous merchant of Qarth. A hulking man at 6'6", Anozie towers over 6-foot-even Pine as they enter a swanky, modern hotel with garish red furniture and lit up floor panels.
In a luxurious suite, Ryan is taking in the incredible view when he spies in the window's reflection Embee has pulled out a gun. Instinctively, Ryan ducks and flees to the bathroom as the huge would-be killer blocks the door to the hallway. A brawl ensues that seems to put Ryan at the disadvantage. After all, he is far smaller and lacks a weapon. But his training (we're later told he's a marine) kicks in. Ryan utilizes his surroundings to his advantage, taking Embee by surprise, knocking him off balance, and ultimately ending the giant in a desperate bid to save his own life.
Pine pulls off the physicality of the complicated fight choreography with aplomb. Afterwards he said of the stunt work, "I think any actor you talk to, it just seems like part of the component of doing an action film is that you try to do as much of it as you can. I enjoy it because, for instance, the fight scene that you saw, it’s like a dance so there’s like a Zen to it. You have to be really, really focused because you’re moving at really high speeds and there’s kind of a beauty to it because your world just kind of closes down, your vision is about that wide." He pulled his two hands together to suggest a sort of tunnel vision. He went on to detail how some stunts he didn't attempt not just for his own safety but for the safety of his scene partner. Best to call in a professional in situations like that. Whenever possible, though, he was game. "I enjoy it and I also think it’s important because it allows the camera all those little itty bitty moments of seeing your face. It just, again, kind of gives a reality to it."
After killing Embee, Ryan doesn't just dust himself off and split as Bond might so. He calls the CIA in a panic, pleading, "I'm out of my goddamn element." His face is racked with anxiety. His hands tremble, and I was reminded of the park scene from Bourne Identity, where Jason Bourne's body knows how to protect itself, but his brain strains to understand how to handle this level of violence. "Remember your trade craft and you'll be fine," advises a calm female voice on the other end of the phone after directing him to a rendezvous point.
For Pine this moment of grief and panic was crucial to the role of Ryan. He offered, "Many films in the milieu, in this ilk, it’s like, bad guys die all the time and no one’s really reacting to the fact that people are dying. Ken [Branagh] and I talked about that in the beginning of the process thinking, well, what would that look like? If there was a bad guy and the good guy kills the bad guy, but even still, it’s like, you’ve just killed a human being and what does that mean and how does that effect the person? I just think it made the scene a much more interesting moment."
En route to the rendezvous, he gets a call from his wife Cathy. I knew Keira Knightley had secured that role, but was still stunned to hear her American accent. It sounds authentic, but Knightley's original English accent is so a part of her persona that I frankly couldn't get over what a transformation this change in inflection was. Their conversation is cut short as Ryan rushes to meet his contact William Harper, played by Kevin Costner.
These two have a very involved conversation about what this analyst has uncovered that would make someone want him dead. "You are not just an analyst anymore," Harper informs Ryan. "You are operational now." To be honest, I didn't follow all of the economics jargon Ryan was throwing down. It's a finance-based plot on a global level but the broad strokes are that Russia wants to tank the American economy by covertly bringing on the Second Great Depression. This is how villain Viktor Cherevin - played by director Branagh - will fit in, but neither this clip nor the next gave him any face time.
We leap to a new scene, which appears to be at the tail end of act two. Now Jack and Cathy Ryan are reunited, but not happily. She's getting orders from Harper on how she can best aid in an operation to get the best of Cherevin. Cathy is calm, and willing to take the risk of playing the diversion for this wily Russian while her husband sneaks into his office building to hook up some spy tech. Jack is less enthusiastic about the idea, and wants Cathy kept far away from this deadly gamble. Harper ends the debate by deadpanning, "This is geo-politics, not couples therapy." While Jack grimaces, Cathy exits to make herself into eye candy to bait the baddie.
Smashcut to a frenetic sizzle reel of action, Ryan running, Branagh glowering - there was so much that my notes devolved into completely illegible scribbles. There's a clear energy to the film, which shouldn't be surprising to anyone whose seen Pine in Star Trek or Branagh's last action effort Thor. It seems part of the secret to this vibrancy is in how Branagh shoots. While many directors shoot a wide shot of a scene first, then move in for close-ups, Pine told us the opposite is true of Branagh's style. "Ken likes to work in reverse, so the beginning of the day is actually the close-up and then as you go on throughout the day it gets wider and wider," Pine said. "And often times that can be kind of intimidating for an actor because often times you’re spending the day trying to figure out what the fuck you’re doing, but I enjoyed it with this. There was an energy to the scenes and a rawness to the scenes because you didn’t have time to make sense of everything. You had to think on the fly at six in the morning when we’re shooting and I’ve never worked that way and I enjoyed it very much."
Another challenge Pine faced was having to tone down the big emotions he'd grown accustomed to playing as Captain Kirk. "Kirk’s fun because he’s such a blowhard and also tonally in that film I can be a little bit bigger and there’s comedy and you can go a little bit broader and I love, love that," Pine explained. "And this, Ken kept on asking me to go smaller and it’s very difficult for me because I’m very used to kind of being, you know, the brash thing, whatever. It was hard. It was difficult to kind of cut as much as I could out of everything and Ken kept on saying we just wanted to rest the camera on your face and see a man thinking and processing what’s happening. I’m not very comfortable with that. I kind of want to do something and he kept on telling me to stop it."
Asked if part of the appeal of his current project, the musical Into the Woods, was the return to big emotions, Pine responded, "Yeah. That was really more because it was such an incredible cast and I don’t have a very big part, but I just wanted to be a part of that group. And I never sung before – I mean, on camera. I sing in the shower… But yeah, it’s fun. The Prince Charming is very kind of fairy tale-ish and two-dimensional and big hair. I mean, it was a blast. I love that stuff. "
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit opens on January 17, 2014.