Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection
There was a time when Kevin Costner was one of the top actors in Hollywood, as well as an Academy Award winning director. Of course, that was 20 years ago, before his epic debacle Waterworld. It's been so long that it's like saying that there used to be a time when movies weren't in color or didn't have sound.
After years of flying beneath the radar, Costner could have as many as five films released in 2014 (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, 3 Days to Kill, Draft Day, McFarland, and Black and White). Five! That's a lot for any actor not named Elizabeth Banks. How did it come about that an actor-director once vilified for his difficult nature and cost overruns is suddenly the hardest working guy in films?
Costner's is a tale of how to best deal with Hollywood adversity and come out mostly okay. After the fiasco that surrounded Waterworld — which comes honestly by its reputation as one of the biggest filmmaking disasters ever — Costner kept on working. Even when the post-apocalyptic The Postman tanked on a grand scale as well, the actor kept going. In fact, since his breakout role as Elliott Ness in Brian De Palma's The Untouchables in 1987, there have only been four calendar years in which Costner hasn't been on the big screen at all. Typically, it's been roles that play upon the everyman characteristics that made him so appealing in earlier films like Field of Dreams.
It's actually the most recent of those missing years, however, that probably explains the actor's current resurgence. While he didn't appear in a feature film in 2012, he did appear on television in the History Channel's well-received miniseries Hatfields & McCoys. His turn as 'Devil' Anse Hatfield won him a Golden Globe and a wave of good publicity.
After playing Superman's Earth father last year in Man of Steel, Costner's new run of roles has him playing everything from a dying Secret Service agent in 3 Days to Kill to sports related characters in Draft Day and McFarland to a man fighting for custody of his granddaughter in Black and White. It's a diverse group, yet each part harkens back to territory that Costner has covered in the past.
That, in the end, might be the true explanation for why 2014 is shaping up to be the Year of Costner. After 30 years of working steadily as an actor, Costner has found the sweet spot where he knows what kinds of roles that he can excel in and he largely works within that range. Acknowledging limitations is something that many actors are loath to do, but as Costner has demonstrated sometimes staying true to one's self leads to greater rewards… and a whole bunch of movie roles.
Paramount via Everett Collection
A quarter of the way into Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit's far-too-long runtime, the titular hero takes note of a war-time portait in his adversary Viktor Cherevin's office. "Napoleon," Ryan says, proudly identifying the subject of the painting. "Ah," the nefarious Cherevin smiles. "I see you know your history." You'd think we'd get a bit more academic sophistication in a film directed by Kenneth Branagh... hell, in a line delivered by Kenneth Branagh. But this is par for the course in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit's script. And even more problematic, it's the thing that sticks with me most only a few days after seeing the movie. Well, that and the fact that Chris Pine and Keira Knightley make for the most compatibly attractive onscreen couple I have ever seen. Aside from these standout elements, the film dissolves into a 105-minute (jeez, it feels twice that) blur of running, driving, choking, shooting, and the like.
But it's not a painful jaunt all the while, and this is thanks almost entirely to Pine. An actor who we remember popping up in early Lindsay Lohan movies and thinking little of, Pine has earned his place at the center of franchises like Star Trek and, this weekend's box office intake permitting, Jack Ryan. He maintains character and personality in the movie's heightened scenes of "the first kill" and pulling the long con on Cherevin. With a better, smarter script, Pine could thrive in an action hero role like Ryan, but here he's only left to occasionally cut through a staunch layer of boredom.
Paramount via Everett Collection
The other winning factor of Jack Ryan is in its female lead: Knightley and her character Dr. Cathy Mullins. Another pervasive charmer, Knightley manages to inject a wealth of vitality into the movie at the points most desperate for some flavor — so much so that we're not simply thrilled, but relieved when she shows up unexpectedly to tag along with boyfriend Jack on his mission to... to... well, it's something to do with stopping terrorism. Trust me, you'll forget the specifics as soon as you leave the theater, if not sooner. But the most impressive part is that Shadow Recruit actually gives Knightley something to do as Mullins. She doesn't just wait around and lament the life choices of her danger-prone boyfriend, she gets in on the action. And we're glad for it. Without her, it'd just be Pine. And as much as we like him, he needs somebody else with a personality to play off (sorry, Kevin Costner, but you're not exactly playing your A Game here).
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In short, there's almost nothing to say about Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, which in itself says a lot — it's dull, it's slow, and it's got two stars who deserve a lot better than the material they're dealt. Aw hell, maybe the sequel (yeah, we've come out of denial... it's gonna happen) will up the ante on the script, and not mistake knowing who Napoleon is for being a history expert.
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The Raven takes a solid foundation (the works of Edgar Allan Poe) gives it an interesting twist (a Se7en-esque crime riff on Poe's existing works) and squanders the opportunity into an unwatchable 111-minute film fit for no audience. One part CSI one part Saw the thriller plods its way through bloody setup after bloody setup as Poe (John Cusack) accompanies Detective Fields (Luke Evans) in search of the author's fiancee Emily (Alice Eve). She's been kidnapped by a murderous literary-inclined madman prompting Poe to put on his Sherlock hat and scream a lot.
Turns out the inventive demises of Poe's characters recreated by the faceless serial killer aren't that exciting — at least in the hands of director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta Ninja Assassin). The Raven is a straightforward procedural souped up with Victorian era production design but the unique setting doesn't forgive any of the ineptitude on display in the other aspects of the film. Poe is forced by the murder to chronicle his villainous exploits for the Baltimore newspaper — the perfect way to torture an entitled author and a dramatic hook to draw us into the antics. But McTeigue abandons the slow burn quality that could have been in favor of buckets of blood. The grisliness of the killings is one of the film's obsession red splashing across the screen as a pendulum guts a random victim. The Raven's gore earns the film's R but it's out of place.
Cusack's performance as Poe is befuddling. At times he's an egomaniac a wise thinker an action hero — he's completely in flux and every ounce of the movie's attempted seriousness vanishes. Never before has a part cried out for Nicolas Cage's signature brand of crazy-eyed manic heightened realism. Late in the film Poe and a team of police frantically search for his wife-to-be in a crypt. He calls out "EMILLLLLLLLYYYYYYY" in what sounds like the actor's best Ron Burgandy impression. Cusack doesn't know what movie he's in and there's no one around to help him.
There's little to enjoy in The Raven even on the surface. The muddy and dull cinematography looks like it was shot with a pea soup filter drab period-costuming and production design making squinting even more imperative. There's a strong core idea that dimly flickers under the bland mess of ideas flopping around in the movie — one Cusack and McTeigue even seem capable of pulling off. But The Raven is a spilled quill of ink sopped up with scare tactics and over-the-top performances. Less nevermore than never began.