LONDON - If franchise rebooting were hip-hop, Jack Ryan would be the Sugar Hill Gang -- maybe not the first on the block, but certainly far enough ahead of the curve to look cool.
Tom Clancy's dogged CIA analyst, whose rise in the literary series would take him all the way to the White House, was played by a svelte Alec Baldwin in "Hunt For Red October," became Harrison Ford for a couple '90s hits and then was embodied by Ben Affleck in "Sum of All Fears."
It's early October in London and Jack Ryan is being rebirthed for a new generation under the careful watch of director Kenneth Branagh
and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, as well as producer Mace Neufeld, who has had a hand in each of the franchise's previous incarnations.
The first of his adventures not to be based on a Clancy novel, this origin story is simply titled "Jack Ryan" and, on the film's set, those the producers tease a plot that they mostly promise will be contemporary.
"Our world right now faces incredible economic uncertainty," hints di Bonaventura. "The notion of what is a superpower has evolved and who actually can carry what muscle and what is America's role in the world and a terrorism and all those things exist in this movie. It feels incredibly contemporary, particularly the economic aspect of it and the sense that a lot of the larger kinda 'earthquake' moves that precipitate this movie have to do with the fact of what is the economic order and who's trying to take control over it. So it's not a movie about economics, but the effect of what is going on in the world is very, very driven and very, very clear in this movie, the relationship with that."
Adds David Barron, "It's a very real central premise to the story and it's something that, when you do get to know what that central premise is, if you think back there was something in the news quite recently where two international superpowers were... somebody contemplated the very thing that's happening in our story... It's very real, very contemporary and a lot of fun."
All of the producers credit Branagh's involvement, hot off of "Thor," with kick-starting the long-gestating project, while he, in turn, tips his hat to a script so juicy it even made him want to take a key supporting role.
"This script arrived and was un-put-down-able and I knew the previous films, I'd read some of the books and, simple as that, it came out of the blue. I was going to be making another movie, but it went away and this one came to me and I read it and responded very strongly and it's the kind of the film that I go to see," says Branagh, who compares the movie he's making to '70s thrillers like "All the President's Men." [He also promises that there will be no Dutch camera angles, though that's a different story.]
One thing that was important to all involved parties, of course, was keeping the integrity of the Jack Ryan character, what with his name being the title.
"For me, I think the thing I see most of all is he's an Everyman," Di Bonaventura says. "'Everyman' is probably the wrong word, because he's living in a kinda extraordinary place and his education certainly isn't exactly Everyman, but I think what I mean by that is that when you're watching a Jack Ryan movie, you feel like you could be in the same place and you'd hope you'd do the same thing. Know what I mean? He's not Bourne. He can't just take out 10 guys with one hand tied behind his back, which is fun as hell. He's a very approachable hero, in a sense. He has a really strong sense of right and wrong."
One man associated with "Jack Ryan" who knows what it takes to embody an Everyman hero is Kevin Costner
, who takes a supporting role as a legendary CIA field agent and Ryan's mentor. It's a full-circle turn for Costner, who was once offered the lead in "Hunt for Red October," but chose to do a little revisionist Western called "Dances with Wolves" instead.
Costner, who graciously came in to chat with reporters on his off-day, has kind words for Pine, who is taking his second rebooted franchise lead after playing James Kirk in a pair of "Star Trek" films.
"There's thing in America where you're about six-feet, you're white or something like that and you get to play these roles. He is stepping into that time-honored spot and it's not an easy one," Costner says of Pine. "Everybody thinks it's easy. It's not so easy to carry a movie. It's really not so easy. In fact, it's the evolution of your stature in Hollywood. I remember when I played in 'Silverado,' everybody went, 'Wow, that guy's really flashy... That's really cool... That's really whatever.' And then they go, 'Yeah, but he probably can't carry a film.' So it's always these things that you've gotta get over and Chris is in that moment, because he fits the way a lot of these stories read for a traditional lead. So it's not boring and it shouldn't be underestimated how good you have to be to actually be able to do that. Other people get to come into the movie and do accents and do little funny things and be incredible character actors and you just have to be Boring Lead. It's not that it's "boring," but you just have to be That Guy and you cannot be concerned if somebody starts to steal the movie... You have to actually be smart enough as a lead actor to want that to happen, want somebody to come and be very flashy and that makes for a better movie. He fits in that category."
Pine agrees with the challenge that Costner describes, the responsibility of being the relatable center of world-spanning drama and how Jack Ryan is a different kind of character from one of his logical cinematic contemporaries.
"You know, with Bourne, for instance, Bourne has his body. He's physically very adept at kicking ass. And Bond looks great doing it and he's kinda brooding and complicated but he wears a suit well and he drives great cars. I think you're right in say that... I think the challenge with Jack is how do you make dynamic his smarts?" Pine muses. "His weapon is his brain. He thinks and moves with his mind faster than other people. I think with the kind of Clancy world and the Clancy plots, oftentimes kinda the lead of the story is the story itself. Even with like "Hunt for Red October," I thought the plot with Connery with even more fascinating than any one of the particular characters and I think with the Ryan character, the challenge is to... You have to excitingly move the plot forward. So maybe the challenge is... you can't rely on anything in particular and you kinda just have to let the thinking do the work, I guess. I think with this film we tried to give him a substantive enough background and backstory so that we understand why he moves and thinks the way that he does and why that is appealing to him and why perhaps in this particular circumstance, he doesn't initially... maybe is hesitant to jump right into the story."
Branagh also references Bourne as a counterpoint, as well as a slew of other thriller franchises.
"I always liked Bond and I like Bourne and I like 'Mission: Impossible' and this is distinct from all of those," he says. "He's not a paid assassin. He's not a man coming off a program. We don't have the flamboyance of, say, Bond. We don't have the extremity of something like 'Mission; Impossible' in terms of the technology and things that goes on. In a weird way, although Jack Ryan is the sorta brightest and the best -- He's this analyst with a great, skillful intellectual mind -- he's also, in relatively terms, he's a kind of an Everyman, in as much as he doesn't have the range of skills. That Liam Neeson, "I have a very particular set of talents...' He doesn't have that particular set of talents. He's got his brain and he's got a desire to do something, so serve in some way. So all of that, it's rich stuff."
These quotes are merely the tip of the iceberg from long on-set conversations with Branagh, Pine, di Bonaventura, Barron, Neufeld and particularly Costner, who sat down and chatted with us for nearly 40 minutes. They discuss the challenges of bringing Jack Ryan back, the style and tone of "Jack Ryan" and what it will mean for the character if the movie is a hit.
Check HitFix a little closer to release for more from the London set.
"Jack Ryan" hits theaters on December 25, 2013.