'Action is eloquence," wrote Shakespeare in "Coriolanus." So why shouldn't the eloquent Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh direct "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," the rebooting of Tom Clancy's CIA action-thriller series, which opens Friday?
"Thrillers are in my DNA," Branagh explains affably by phone from Los Angeles. "I like to watch them, I like to read them, and on occasion, I've enjoyed trying to make them," as with 1991's "Dead Again." Though best known for directing five Shakespeare adaptations -- and 2011's pidgin-Shakespearean "Thor" -- Branagh has Clancy's "The Cardinal of the Kremlin" and Gillian Flynn's "Dark Places" on his nightstand.
In "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," Chris Pine steps into the role of the CIA operative, at the beginnings of both his career and his relationship with future wife, Cathy (Keira Knightley). Kevin Costner plays William Harper, the career Navy man who recruits Ryan for the intelligence agency, Mikhail Baryshnikov has an uncredited role as a Russian government official, and Branagh himself plays oligarch Viktor Cherevin, whose financial-market machinations threaten to throw America into a second Great Depression.
OUT OF GAS
Those machinations might strain credulity: One key component involves the United States having no petroleum reserves, which, to be generous, let's say is true in the alternate, fictional reality where the movie takes place. But Branagh the director keeps the beautifully shot film careening at whipcrack pace without sacrificing seriousness, and Branagh the actor creates a ruthless Russian ideologue who uses money as a weapon. Also a gun and even a lightbulb when he needs to.
Branagh says he took the role "only further down the line" after signing on to direct. "After I had been involved with it for months and just physically knew, because of the way the part was shaping up, that I'd be able to do that and still have enough time and objectivity to direct the picture as well. Paramount and Chris Pine were both quietly trying to nudge me to do it, and I finally woke up to the creative possibilities and said, 'Yes, thank you very much.' "
THE COWS STAYED HOME
When he received the script, the Belfast-born Branagh, 53, had been slated to direct another movie that didn't pan out. "It was called 'Guernsey,' based on a very successful, very long-winded title of a book called 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,' about a book club on an island in the middle of the English Channel. Doesn't sound like Cineplex fare, exactly, but it's a wonderful story. Anyway, I was booked for a certain and we couldn't cast it, and so that project went away and literally the next day this one showed up and was such a bracing departure from what I had been working on."
It also represented, he says, "this additional challenge of trying to reimagine a character that clearly is memorable to lots of people, but who's had this kind of broken cinematic life with several actors in the role" -- Alec Baldwin in "The Hunt for Red October" (1990), followed by Harrison Ford in two films and Ben Affleck in one.
And despite the scale -- the film, he says, was shot in New York, Moscow, Liverpool and London, and then returned to New York for reshoots -- he thought "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" would be less daunting than making last year's "Thor: The Dark World" sequel.
Directing "Thor" "was really revelatory," says Branagh, whose five Oscar nominations include ones for both actor and director for "Henry V" (1989) and for adapted screenplay for "Hamlet" (1996). "It involved a couple of years of working in America. It involved trying to find the tone -- a difficult part of working in the Marvel universe and one that everyone acknowledges is a key part of what they're doing. Everyone at Marvel is a passionate, dedicated fan of the material. I thought they wanted someone who had an equally passionate view of the story. So, from that point of view, the collaboration was, for me, immensely fruitful, immensely rewarding, immensely satisfying," he says. "But it was also exhausting, working at that kind of pitch. It was too soon for me to get straightaway into another version of that, one which would take up the same amount of time and energy -- which I admitted, and they were very understanding about it."
And directing "Jack Ryan" in New York had its own kind of past-movie deja vu. Shooting the climactic action sequence in the Financial District and the Battery Park area reminded him, he says, of "having to drive on the FDR for a Woody Allen film I made some years ago. It was a terrifying experience. For an Irishman who lives just outside London, driving in New York is terrifying -- especially trying to do Woody Allen dialogue well while not crashing the car. When I went back to the FDR for 'Jack Ryan,' I got the sweats. I thought Woody was suddenly going to appear from somewhere and insist I get back in that car and read a scene! That wouldn't have been a good thing."
Four previous films have starred CIA officer Jack Ryan, introduced in Tom Clancy's 1984 novel, "The Hunt for Red October." All were adaptations of Clancy novels. The new film, while taking biographical elements of Ryan's early life from the books, is an original screenplay by Adam Cozad and David Koepp. Here's a rundown of its four predecessors.
THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990) Alec Baldwin as CIA analyst Ryan must convince the U.S. government the crew of a submarine captained by Sean Connery genuinely wants to defect. Directed by John McTiernan.
PATRIOT GAMES (1992) Harrison Ford takes over the role, with CIA retiree Ryan returning to the fold after Northern Ireland revolutionaries attack his family. Directed by Phillip Noyce.
CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER (1994) Ford and Noyce reunite, with Ryan becoming acting CIA deputy director of intelligence and uncovering an illegal agency operation against Colombian drug cartels.
THE SUM OF ALL FEARS (2002) Ben Affleck stars in a reboot, returning Ryan to his roots, with CIA director Morgan Freeman recruiting the young analyst, who uncovers a nuclear-armed terrorist group about to provoke a war between Russia and America. Directed by Phil Alden Robinson.