There was a time when blockbuster movies fought shy of taking on states. Even at the height of the Second Cold War, in Octopussy (1983) James Bond (Roger Moore) faced not the Evil Empire itself but a rogue Soviet General Orlov. He was foiled by 007, to be sure, but ultimately killed by his Russian superior. In Airforce One (1997), President Robert Marshall (Harrison Ford) confronts another Russian villain, this time ex-Soviet, a loner who has not come to terms with the collapse of his empire. In those days, the notion that the secret services were taking on a hostile major power, rather than corrupt elements therein, would have seemed bad form.
No longer. In the latest instalment in the Jack Ryan saga, Shadow Recruit, Putin’s Russia is firmly in the Director’s sights. The villain Viktor Cherevin (played by an outstanding Kenneth Branagh, who also directs, somewhat less outstandingly) may be deniable, but the film clearly shows him acting under orders from a Russian government minister, and when he is unceremoniously executed at the end of the film it is as punishment for failing, not for trying in the first place.
The story begins with Russia’s fury over US support for a new pipeline which will make Eastern Europe and the Caucasus less energy dependent on Moscow, and reduce the price of the oil sold to finance the regime. In retaliation, the Kremlin approves a plan to launch a major terrorist attack on the US financial centre in downtown Manhattan, using carefully placed sleeper agents among the Russian community in the US. This is to be followed by a concerted sale of the dollar to bring her currency to its knees. The consequences are spelled out: recession, then depression, mass unemployment and the end of the American dream as we know it.
The man charged with preventing this is Jack Ryan (Chris Pine), an ex-serviceman badly wounded in Afghanistan now working undercover for the CIA as a financial analyst for one of the big Wall Street firms. When auditing the accounts of one of their dodgy Russian clients, Ryan stumbles across Cherevin’s nefarious currency trades, and is duly dispatched to Moscow to investigate. His mission exposes the cynicism of Wall Street about the flood of tainted Russian money flowing through its accounts — I told you to look hard at client accounts, his boss says, but “not that hard”. Above all, though, it lifts the stone on the Russian elites. Shadow recruit portrays them as shorn of their former (communist) ideological animus, so that politics is all about the acquisition and defence of wealth. Russia is thus “a corporation, not a country”, in the felicitous phrase of Jack Ryan’s Wall Street boss.
In a trend which seems to have begun with Daniel Craig first Bond in Casino Royale, Pine’s Ryan is a gentle hero, genuinely traumatised by violence. His hands shake. He forgets his secret address, as anyone might do under strain. His veteran handler William Harper (Kevin Costner) confesses that the first person he had killed was entirely innocent: she had come up behind him unexpectedly during an operation. There is some tututting about waterboarding. At this point, the largely young audience in the cinema — it has a 12A certificate — became restless. They need not have worried. We were soon embarked on a rollercoaster of bone-crunching violence, starting with a drowning of one of Cherevin’s goons in a Moscow bathtub in a few inches of water, and ending with that of his terrifyingly muscular son in the rather more capacious Hudson River in New York. All this makes not only for a rattling good yarn, but suggests that for all their studied toughness and emotional autism, the Kremlin’s men are no match for the all-American hero.
In what appears to be a back-handed homage to the opening sixty minutes or so of the iconic The Deerhunter (1978), whose Russian-Americans from Pennsylvania are the epitome of US patriotism, ‘Shadow Recruit’ locates Cherevin’s sleepers — they all have American citizenship — among a similar milieu of factory workers and church goers in Dearborn, Michigan, 35 years on. This is perfectly plausible dramatically, but — given that Russian Americans have shown little sympathy with Mr Putin — is politically rather harsh. There must be ways of getting across the message about threats from abroad, especially state-sponsored ones, without inventing them within.
The image of Russian politics offered in Shadow Recruit is simplified, of course, but it is essentially fair comment. Even the most uninterested member of the general public will be vaguely aware of the invasions of Chechnia and Georgia, the energy blackmail of the Ukraine, the arbitrary imprisonment of the recently-released Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the Pussy Riot women, and the murder of many journalists and human rights activists, such as Anna Politovskaya. In short, the film is the perfect antidote to the fraternal Olympic charade at Sochi. Whatever its artistic merits, and it is clear that the movie claims none, Shadow Recruit not only entertains but reminds us that the Kremlin is a repressive power, which deals as roughly with its own subjects as it would like to deal with us.