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Kenneth Branagh Tries To Bring Jack Ryan Back To Life

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Kenneth Branagh talks "Jack Ryan." | Paramount

The last Jack Ryan movie was released in theaters back in 2002, with Ben Affleck's starring role in "The Sum of All Fears" -- a film that made a lot more money than you probably remember (just under $200 million worldwide). At that point, Kenneth Branagh's last directorial effort was "Love's Labour's Lost," his 2000 adaptation of the Shakespeare play that was a box office disappointment. Actually, Branagh's last three directed films at that point were Shakespeare adaptations. So, yes, when put in these terms, it would seem like an odd choice that the next Jack Ryan film would be directed by the man who brought us a big screen version of "Hamlet." Of course, a little movie Branagh directed called "Thor" changed a lot of perceptions.

"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" reboots the character to square one (in a story not adapted from one of Tom Clancy's books). After watching the events of 9/11 play out on television, graduate student Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) joins the military and is sent to Afghanistan. After being injured in combat, Ryan is approached by a Navy officer (Kevin Costner) about working for the CIA as a financial analyst. Ryan eventually winds up in Moscow, where he's assigned to look into the finances of a suspected Russian terrorist named Viktor Cherevin (Branagh, playing double duty as both director and co-star).

"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" was supposed to be Paramount's holiday season tent-pole film, but delays associated with "The Wolf of Wall Street" pushed that film into the December slot and "Ryan" to January. I spoke to Branagh on Monday afternoon to discuss the challenges of a character that's so popular his name is in the title, but hasn't been seen in theaters in 12 years.

You came on first as the director, when did you decide, "You know, I'm going to also play the villain?"
I would say it took two or three months, probably. I came on -- another director had fallen out and I had just lost a picture -- it all happened really, really quickly. I loved the script and I couldn't put it down and I very much admired David Koepp's work as screenwriter. So, I sat down with him and the first process was, "What are my reactions and notes?" Then I went around to everybody who was in the process and got their notes. By the time it got to Viktor, it felt as though I understood that character, which had changed as a result of all of those other processes. So, about three or four months in, I thought, "Well, I think I'm probably the right person for this, now that we've developed it in this way."

What was the biggest change you made to the script?
I think it was refinement -- it was a point of view, really. It was a point of view that was to do with focusing as much as we could on Jack's isolation throughout the picture. It was about focusing on what we thought the picture was about, which I felt was about what it takes to be a patriot. What it takes to serve. In Jack's case, from around this emotional pivot of 9/11 -- and the backstory of Viktor and the point of view of his misplaced patriotism with the death of his son and his sense of injustice of the American treatment of Russia in the modern world. Both are trying with difficulty to exercise themselves as patriots.

In the film, Jack joins the military after watching the events of 9/11 on television. The stakes in this movie are twofold: the threat of a financial attacks and a terrorist attack. Do movies today have to up the stakes so that the threat is something worse than what we've experienced in real life?
That's an interesting way to look at it. I think, from a story point of view, thrillers have always looked to have high stakes. But I think that, particularly in the financial world, we thought it was credible across a series of recent events. Also, when the degree of specialization in the management of those systems relies on the brilliance of an analytical mind, like a Jack Ryan -- or put to ill use by one of Cherevin's cronies -- then it's not even so much that the stakes end up being high, but that they just are. I think that even if we weren't looking to up the stakes, the world has provided us with a scenario where Jack Ryan is potentially walking into catastrophic circumstances.

I liked both Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, so I never took sides in that debate. Chris Pine's portrayal is certainly different from those two, but there's something familiar about it, too. Was that by design?
Well, it's interesting -- that's an interesting reaction you have. I would say that I read the script knowing that he was going to play Jack Ryan and I found myself thinking, "This makes total sense. This is perfect casting."

Why?
Well, the name Jack Ryan, I don't know, already somehow suggests a kind of an oak tree -- something yeoman-like. Something deeply reliable. Something two-feet-in-the-ground kind of a guy. Someone that you can bet the house on, somehow. So, you want him to look a certain way ... it goes with that name. And Chris Pine, whatever it is -- that six-foot-two, blue-eyed fit guy -- just feels like the right guy. He's also charming, intelligent, kind and funny. And we know he has some swagger from James Tiberius Kirk [in "Star Trek"]. There are two things that are kind of key in Chris' version of Jack, I think. One is when he's alone on the rooftop in Russia, having killed a man -- and having killed a man is no fun for Jack. There's nothing light; there's nothing casual about it. It's appalling. And he's scared. And yet, he's still brave, because he's hanging in there -- he's a brave man that you can rely on. And then in the airplane coming from Moscow to America, as they begin to understand exactly what's happening.

You're grateful that kind of brilliance exists in a guy who in so many other ways is a regular guy -- a guy you'd like to be like, whose friend you'd like to be. In the books, he's portrayed as someone who is a kind of everyman. A regular Joe with this exceptional quality and Chris seems to fit those shoes. Alec Baldwin had inevitably a kind of sharpness in the first one, and the reliability of Harrison Ford and the sensitivity of Ben Affleck. All of those things get wrapped up in Chris and come out in a different form that, I think, for me made total sense for the character and the movie.

Compared to when your career started, I don't know if the plan was ever to do more big-budget action movies, but you bring something to them that's interesting. "Thor" seems like a tough movie to pull off, yet people responded very well to that one ...
You know, you arrive at any of these things with an accumulation of your experience thus far and your tastes. And, in a way, you're being employed for your tastes. Anybody who makes films can make these films. You know, there are lots of talented people -- lots of people who can direct movies. You're being employed for your particular taste, world-view way of doing stories. And sometimes they collide in good ways. Sometimes the exceptionally challenging tone of something like "Thor" meets a certain kind of taste that I developed through doing exhaustive material in Shakespeare and trying to root it with performances that really kind of made the two things come together -- make it human, but still retain its size and spectacle that relies on the brilliance of people like Tom Hiddleston or Chris Hemsworth. In this case, I think that the depth that Chris Pine and Kevin Costner and Keira Knightley bring to it I think is a great gift to the movie. And they're there because I think they are marvelous actors and I got employed for my sort of tastes -- and my tastes are expressed in those choices.

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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