Keira Knightley © 2011 Getty Images
Now that the Untitled Jack Ryan Movie has committed to a Christmas 2013 release date, all it needs is a title, reason for being, and a speck of relevance to life in the Digital Age.
While this tough talk may seem unwarranted at this early stage in the project’s development, spy thrillers have become embarrassingly anachronistic, as if the genre's ubiquitous Cold War conceits and taciturn heroes and long suffering lady friends have been suspended in amber since the genre’s ‘80s heyday. Sure, Bourne deployed an effective distraction from its pretzel-like plot twists and ludicrous one-man-triumphs-over-an-army-of-thugs fight scenes with its urban warfare verite camera work, but that was all surface work. This genre needs to be rebuilt from the inside out.
Any serious overhaul should devote some serious resources to updating and enhancing the female characters populating fictional narratives involving espionage on the page or screen. For anyone who doubts this to be true, we encourage you to ask yourself the following: What is the meaningful distinction between today’s spandex-clad sidekicks and saintly love interests and a 1960s Bond Girl? We’d argue that any distinctions are little more than cosmetic. Today’s characters aren’t any more interesting or complex. They’re just more likely to spout complicated technical jargon or deploy a Krav Maga death kick during their limited screen time.
If you’re still skeptical, we challenge you to name three things you remember about Anne Archer’s character in the first round of adaptations of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series. Ok, we’ll go easy on you. Anyone who can name one defining quality of her character in those films, aside from selfless devotion to Harrison Ford’s taciturn CIA analyst, will receive a tip of the hat and an honorary plaque celebrating your retention of useless pop culture byproducts. Bonus points for anyone who can name anything else Anne Archer has done in the years since her stint in “Clear and Present Danger” and “Patriot Games.” Double Bonus Points: Name Ryan’s main squeeze in “The Sum of All Fears.”
These interchangeable ciphers from Tom Clancy movies past simply aren’t going to cut it anymore. For reasons still mysterious to us, none of this deterred Keira Knightley from signing on to play the only leading role not mentioned in the title of the Untitled Jack Ryan Movie. Knightley, who has cornered the market on coveted roles as corseted emotionally unglued heroines, caused more than a few double takes when news broke last week that she’d boarded the bus to blockbuster-ville in this reboot of the spin-off of the reboot of the original adaptation of Clancy’s seminal spy series that lodged itself at the top of bestseller lists throughout much of the late ‘80s and ‘90s. It should be noted that, back then, an actress of Knightley’s stature (think: a young Helena Bonham Carter) would have sooner agreed to non-simulated sex scenes with Mickey Rourke than to play an action star’s saintly, saucer-eyed plus one.
Adding substance to Knightley’s role is just one of the red-flagged items topping this project’s must-do list. The film's producers will also have to solve the vexing problem of convincing Millennial that a film revolving around a Moscow-based spook (played by Chris Pine) has any relevance to their lives, fantasies, or darkest fears. With an old-school classicist like Kenneth Branagh at the helm, however, it’s unlikely that we’ll see this patched-together project venture too far into uncharted territory. Still, we’re holding out some hope that Knightley will at least class up the joint, and maybe even begin the long-overdue process of making clear that a woman’s job (in a spy picture) should not be limited to a few concerned phone calls and a moment of fake jeopardy.
What are your thoughts on the state of the modern spy thriller? Can you name any recent novels or films that embody the concerns, culture, and ethos of the Digital Age? What elements are most essential to make an espionage relevant, real and readable? Which spy franchises feature the most interesting characters?