The movies exist through repetition, courtesy of the miraculous visual formula that is 24 frames per second. Yet the formula is slightly more complicated in execution. It’s repetition, yes, but with variation. No two frames are identical.
The same principle of repetition with variation applies to several enduringly popular movie heroes. The character repeats, the performers vary. Dozens of actors have played Sherlock Holmes. A half dozen have played James Bond (and that’s not counting the multiple “Bonds” in the 1967 spoof “Casino Royale”). Another half dozen have played Philip Marlowe.
Repetition with variation applies to superheroes as well as detectives and secret agents. Is Christian Bale your preferred Batman? Michael Keaton? Probably not Val Kilmer or George Clooney. Or Ben Affleck, in the forthcoming “Batman vs. Superman” — and, of course, several actors have played Superman, too.
What brings all this to mind is “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” which opens Friday. Chris Pine plays a young version of the title character. It’s the fifth film outing for the namesake CIA hero of novelist Tom Clancy, who died last October. Pine follows Alec Baldwin (“The Hunt for Red October,” 1990), Harrison Ford (“Patriot Games,” 1992, and “Clear and Present Danger,” 1994), and Affleck (“The Sum of All Fears,” 2002). Pine is best known for playing Kirk, in the two most recent “Star Trek” movies — hello, William Shatner (speaking of character/actor switcheroos). If one thing characterizes Pine as an actor, it’s a certain swagger. Maybe he’ll be great in “Jack Ryan.” It has to be said, though, Ryan is not a swaggery guy.
Pine, Baldwin, Ford, and Affleck: They sound like a law firm. Not that any of the name partners would be mistaken for each other. That four such different actors can portray Ryan suggests his essential blandness. Onscreen, you might say, Jack exhibits a split impersonality.
Impersonality isn’t necessarily a shortcoming. Jack is bland and colorless for two reasons. First, Clancy’s literary abilities (and they do exist) don’t exactly extend to characterization. Reading Clancy’s novels for character development is like drinking Red Bull for the bouquet. Second, Clancy was smart enough to realize that characterization was not what his books (or the movies made from them) are about. They’re about plotting and know-how and, what’s related to know-how but not quite the same thing, the sense they communicate of being on the inside. Emotion and character are about a very different kind of inside from the sort found at Langley.
Mock Clancy, if you will, but Thomas Pynchon, no less, has a reference to one of his characters in “Bleeding Edge,” Pynchon’s latest novel. Granted, the character isn’t Jack (it’s Marine extraordinaire Ding Chavez), but still.
The benefit of Jack’s colorlessness is that he doesn’t get in the way. He doesn’t drive the plot so much as hold it together. He’s not a superhero. He’s a super-bureaucrat. “You are such a Boy Scout!” the deputy CIA director (Henry Czerny), taunts Ford in “Clear and Present Danger.” The deputy director is a bad guy, an Ollie North-type zealot. But he’s right. Jack may not wear a deerstalker cap or cowl. His sartorial trademark is the imaginary merit badges covering his suit.
Watching “Hunt for Red October” now is a bit startling. Baldwin is that rare actor who looks better fatter. He appears a bit undernourished as Jack, with neither literal nor figurative heft. Honestly, Baldwin needs some more Jack Donaghy to pull off being Jack Ryan. He’s also overmatched. Sean Connery’s Soviet submarine commander is the real star of the show. Baldwin manages to get back at him. In one scene, he does a nifty Connery imitation.
There’s a problem with that, though. Jack isn’t supposed to be funny! Humorlessness is a form of professionalism for Clancy. It’s part of Jack’s heroic-apparatchik style. So depending on how you look at it, Ford is either an ideal Jack — or the worst possible casting. Other than that slightly snaggly smile, Ford’s as stiff and conventional as Jack is. Unfortunately, take away Ford’s smile and any opportunity to be funny (isn’t Han Solo’s “I know,” the single best moment in the “Star Wars” movies?), and he’s duller than a plain kruller. Poor long-suffering Anne Archer, as Jack’s wife, makes two. Those full, full lips of hers are locked in a perpetual pout. It’ll be interesting to see in the new movie what Keira Knightley does with the role. Let’s hope for a little Elizabeth Swann-style feistiness.
The other problem with Ford is that he’s a little too old. Affleck goes to the other extreme. Yes, “Sum of All Fears” is a reset. Even so, Affleck acts younger than his years. He even seems . . . callow. Jack is many things, but callow isn’t one of them. Ryan gives off the unmistakable sense of being one of those people who came out of the womb already grown up. “What is this, ‘The Paper Chase’?” a mildly incredulous CIA director (Morgan Freeman) says upon meeting Affleck’s Jack.
Even worse, he’s not just young and callow — he’s also (least Jack-like of all) horny. Affleck comes across as a complete lightweight. It’s hard to imagine what Bridget Moynahan, as Jack’s future wife, sees in him (beyond the obvious boy-toy properties), let alone what Freeman does.
“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” offers a further twist (presumably unintended) to the casting issue. Playing Jack’s mentor in the film is Kevin Costner. Almost 25 years ago, the actor who was first offered the part in “Hunt for Red October” was, yes, Costner. He chose to make “Dances With Wolves” instead. Who can blame him: Why join the CIA when you can join the Sioux?
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.