Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Two Jacks

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Chris Pine in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Over the weekend, my wife and I finally saw one of our most anticipated movies of 2014: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. And I’m only slightly joking. Shadow Recruit is the kind of film that seems designed to be seen exactly the way we watched it—streaming on Netflix, in our living room, shortly after the baby had gone to bed. It’s an agreeably modest thriller with correspondingly modest ambitions, and even if it doesn’t end up being particularly good, it’s hard to hate a movie that takes place in some nifty locations, offers up fun supporting roles for the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Costner, and a slew of veteran character actors, including an unbilled Mikhail Baryshnikov, and clocks in at well under two hours. The story is a trifle that falls apart as you watch it; it opens with the villains trying and failing to kill the title character, who has turned up to investigate some financial improprieties in Moscow, when they could have achieved most of their goals by sticking him in a nice office and stalling him for two days. And I spent most of the movie wrongly convinced that the love interest played by Keira Knightley was really a British undercover agent, which seemed like the only way to justify her inexplicable American accent.

Yet for all its mediocrity, it’s the kind of movie I’d like to see more often: one that falls squarely in the middle of the pack in terms of spectacle, budget, and even basic competence. Hollywood these days has gravitated toward two opposing extremes, with massive summer tentpoles giving way in the winter to smaller prestige films, which often feel like the cinematic equivalent of taking your medicine before bedtime. In between, you have the usual slew of bad comedies, cheap horror movies, and Nicholas Sparks adaptations, but what’s missing, aside from the occasional Liam Neeson vehicle, is slick, capable junk for grownups. I don’t need every film directed at viewers thirty and older to be The King’s Speech; sometimes I just want to put myself in the hands of a clever director and screenwriter who can do exciting things for ninety minutes with a couple of attractive movie stars, and without prolonged fistfights between robots. Unfortunately, movies like this don’t lend themselves well to multiple installments, and recent attempts to launch franchises on a more manageable scale have mostly sputtered out. We don’t seem likely to see Chris Pine as Jack Ryan again, and the world isn’t exactly clamoring for a sequel to Jack Reacher, a movie I liked a lot.

Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher

All these decisions make good economic sense, at least to the extent that the studios are capable of behaving rationally. A few big bets, balanced out by Oscar contenders that can play throughout awards season, offer a better return on investment than a bunch of movies in the $50 million range. And I can’t fault them for giving up on a big swath of the population that doesn’t go to the movies anymore: these days, with my regular moviegoing a distant memory, I’m a member of the last demographic they should be taking into account. But it still feels like a loss. Many of the movies we remember most fondly emerged from a system that knew how to crank out decent escapist entertainment for adults; when a studio makes fifty films a year with talented directors and stars, eventually, you’ll get Casablanca. And while the gap between Casablanca and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit might seem laughably large, it’s hard to imagine the former emerging from a world that wasn’t interested in producing the latter. Art, at least of the kind that Hollywood has traditionally been most skilled at making, is a kind of numbers game, with great work emerging when the variables line up just right. And an industry that only releases either heavily marketed franchise fare or equally calculated awards bait seems unlikely to generate many accidental masterpieces.

This isn’t to say that excellent movies can’t arise where you least expect them. Edge of Tomorrow, for one, was fantastic, mostly because everyone involved seemed to care just a little bit more about the result than might have been strictly required. And the kind of storytelling I’m mourning here has migrated, with great success, to television, which does seem capable of yielding surprising triumphs of the form, like Hannibal. (You could even take the difference in quality between Hannibal and everything the movies have tried to do with Thomas Harris over the last fifteen years as a sign of how one medium is overtaking the other.) But just as publishers need a healthy midlist to sustain new voices and support good genre novels, the movies need a place where the contemporary equivalents of Michael Curtiz and Jacques Tourneur can thrive. I can’t help but think of Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Oscar two decades ago for The Usual Suspects, made The Way of the Gun—half superb, half totally ridiculous—and then bounced around endlessly from one unproduced project to another. He was rescued by Tom Cruise, who had done much the same years earlier for Robert Towne, directed Jack Reacher, and now he’s helming Mission: Impossible 5. I’m looking forward to it, but I also miss the dozen movies McQuarrie might have made in the meantime, if he had been lucky enough to work in an industry that had any idea what to do with him.

Written by nevalalee

January 7, 2015 at 9:05 am

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