Despite being something of a run-of-the-mill, high-octane action thriller primed to stand out in a January full of clunkers, Chris Pine’s debut as Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit offers a rather unexpected side effect: a very solid attempt at adding a dash of feminism. Thanks to self-proclaimed feminist Kiera Knightley’s character, a noteworthy blip has shown itself in a genre so chock full of machismo that one might think the word “feminist” would be blown into smithereens immediately upon entry.
Those familiar with the various escapades of Tom Clancy’s beloved action hero and all-around great guy Jack Ryan know that for the most part, Ryan’s adventures are bereft of a woman’s touch. While Ryan almost always finds himself with a lovely companion or some degree of love interest, she’s rarely involved and she’s even more rarely assertive, tough, and wildly intelligent. And even if the lady in question was any of those things, we’d never find out as long as the film spends all its time concentrating on Harrison Ford’s beguiling snarl (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger), Alec Baldwin’s icy stare (The Hunt For Red October), or Ben Affleck’s boyish charms (The Sum of All Fears).
By and large, the lady love of Jack Ryan or any average action hero is made to sit in the background, play victim long enough to inspire fear and anger in the hero, and be available for a congratulatory kiss at the end of his journey. But in Knightley’s case, her character Cathy is allowed a little more independence, assertiveness, and involvement. It’s not a total win, but it’s proof that a fun, schlocky blockbuster, like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, can deliver a character that defies (albeit somewhat narrowly) the stereotypes created by years upon years of male-centered action films rather painlessly.
That’s because, for the most part, Cathy’s involvement changes little of Pine’s ability to be front and center as the hero. He is still Jack Ryan and Jack Ryan is still the guy saving the day — he just manages to do it with the assistance of a woman who doesn’t simply stand by his side and look nice. She figures out very early on in the movie (so early it’s even in the trailer, spoiler-phobes) that Jack is in the CIA and from that point on, she’s a part of the action. She plays a large role in the first deception of villain Viktor Cheverin (a bad Russian stereotype played by the film’s director Kenneth Branaugh). She’s a brilliant doctor responsible for Jack’s recovery at the outset of the film and one so in tune with the art of medicine that she later diagnoses one character with just a few choice physical details.
Unlike so many action hero wives and girlfriends, she’s not concerned with marriage — in fact she seems opposed to the notion of a ring on her finger altogether. And throughout the images of her courtship and subsequent relationship with Jack, she insists that they "split the check." Unlike so many "involved" Bond girls, she's decked in rather modest, yet womanly clothing, disallowing any claims that the impossibly gorgeous actress is simply "eye candy." And while these small changes are notable attempts to add a little feminism to a genre that largely has none, they are rather broad strokes. It does seem that the writers Googled "feminist" and saw bullet points that read "not interested in marriage," "refuse to let a man pay for their dinner," "oppose being objectified," and called it a day.
Still, for a film that is largely built of broad strokes, playing on typical American fears surrounding financial meltdown and disaster on the scale of September 11, Knightley’s slightly feminist role is a huge step. In a film so centered on a classic male character, like Jack Ryan, we’re not asking that the roles be reversed and the girlfriend become the de facto hero — it is still a movie about Pine's Ryan — but it certainly shouldn’t be too much to ask that his chosen companion is a woman of substance, brain power, and at least some level of autonomy.
And lucky for January movie-goers, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit meets those very minimal requirements while keeping the audience’s blood-pumping as only a slightly cheesy action movie can.
Image: Paramount Pictures (2)