Tag Archives: Tom Clancy

“The mark of intellectual honesty …”

“The mark of intellectual honesty is the solicitation of opposing points of view.”

— Tom Clancy, in The Sum of All Fears, 1991

 

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Tom Clancy at Burns Library, Boston College. Taken by Gary Wayne Gilbert. Gary Wayne Gilbert, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A review of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (2014)

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (2014) is easily the least of the Tom Clancy adaptations.  But that shouldn’t be enough to indict the film; the other film treatments of the author’s books have all been roundly excellent.  (Okay, 2002’s often-reviled “The Sum of All Fears” might be an exception, but I still like that flick even if I’m in the minority.)  I’d rate this outing a 6 out of 10.

It isn’t a bad movie … it’s just an average, generally undistinguished boilerplate spy thriller that seems half-heartedly rewritten as a reboot of the Clancy films.  Screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp pay cursory attention to the title character’s background, and a key plot development from the books that I will not spoil here.  But the film utterly lacks the mood, detail or methodical plotting of anything Clancy created.

It’s all very generic stuff.   We’ve got a generic, telegenic, twenty-something action hero (Chris Pine), his generic hot girlfriend (Keira Knightley), the expected Russian bad guy (Kenneth Branagh) and a by-the-numbers climax — including the last-second requirement to divert a bomb from its target.  Rounding it all out is Kevin Costner, the most generic good guy ever to behave predictably on screen — he characteristically projects the expected, wholesome gravitas.  Even this film’s title is generic — it sounds like the name a marketing department would come up with for an entry in a video-game series.

There are plot elements that are painfully implausible, even by spy-movie standards.  Jack Ryan’s new girlfriend, for example, surprises him by arriving in Russia in a flourish of quirky-girlfriend spontaneity, only to discover his secret career and then be fully enlisted in a spy operation.  Branagh doubles as the movie’s director; his work here is surprisingly problematic.  This is yet another movie in which important action sequences are barely comprehensible because of frequent, rapid cuts.

Oh, well.  It certainly isn’t all bad.  There isn’t a single bad actor in the film, for example.  If I don’t like Branagh’s directing, I love his acting.  The guy is magnetic — he alternately and convincingly projects menace and charisma to perfection.  Alec Utgoff shines too, in a small role as a soft-spoken, ironically disarming Russian assassin.

People tend to either love or hate Costner.  I like him quite a bit.  No, he doesn’t always demonstrate an incredible range.  But his acting is competent and he’s likable and consistently convincing.  He’s the actor equivalent of that old American sedan that isn’t flashy but always starts reliably when you need it to get you to work.

Hey, you might like this movie far more than I did.  I was an obsessive fan of the books, so my standards may be a bit high where they are adapted to the screen.  Your mileage may vary.

 

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A short review of Season 1 of “Jack Ryan” (2018)

I didn’t quite love the first season of the “Jack Ryan” television series, but I still really, really liked it.  It’s a decent adaptation of Tom Clancy’s source material, albeit a very loose one.  (And that’s just fine — we already have a number of excellent films that closely adapt the events of the books; we don’t need another methodical retread of the author’s novels.)  I’d rate this an 8 out of 10.

There are some narrative weaknesses, particularly in the show’s failure to sustain tension between its episodes.  And there are some surprise plot developments that the show telegraphed a bit obviously.  (I usually don’t pick up on these things, but even I saw the clues.)  There is also a subplot involving a drone operator that is largely unnecessary … some viewers will find it interesting while others will not.

“Jack Ryan” also suffers just a little in comparison with the Audience network’s superior “Condor” (2018).  That excellent show covered much of the same subject matter, with its own ordinary CIA-analyst thrust into deadly game with terrorists.  Season 1 of “Condor” was better written, boasted an amazing cast, and was far more frightening.

John Krasinski does a good job as the title character.  I’ve always thought that this character would be tough for an actor to play, simply because he is so consistently nondescript.  (The whole character concept is that he usually appears to be an especially bright but otherwise ordinary civil servant … his background as a United States Marine and his patriotism and courage aren’t things that he advertises.)  Krasiniski’s Ryan is closer to that of the books than the version we see in the Harrison Ford films.  I love Ford as much as the next person, but his interpretation of the character was too a bit too meek and diffident for me.  That wasn’t quite the Jack Ryan that Clancy created.

What’s strange about the show is that it truly shines when deviates widely from the source materiel — especially in the character of Jim Greer.  He is played to perfection here by Wendell Pierce, and he is no longer the gentle, wizened father figure that we saw in his counterpart from the books and movies.  Nor is he a minor character — Pierce’s Greer is a gruff, pissy operations man fresh off of an ominous and unfair demotion, who shoots and runs right alongside Ryan when the bad guys attack.  It sounds preposterously stupid.  But … it works — largely, I think, because of Pierce’s talent.  He’s a good enough actor to sell the idea and he invests Greer with a kind of perpetually disgruntled, antisocial charm.  I honestly would continue watching this show if it focused on him as the main character.

 

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A review of Season 1 of “Condor” (2018)

When Season 1 of “Condor” was good — and it almost always was — it was a cinema-quality spy thriller.  This was a smart, suspenseful, well made TV show that was very nearly perfect — I’d rate it a 9 out of 10.

“Condor” was adapted loosely from James Grady’s 1974 book, “Six Days of the Condor,” and its famous film adaptation the following year, “Three Days of the Condor.”  I’ve neither read the former or seen the latter, but I can tell you that this new iteration of the story is intelligently written, nicely directed and edited, and well performed by its actors.  It seems to channel the modus operandi of Tom Clancy’s books and films — showing multiple thoughtful characters plotting and acting either against or alongside one another — while the show keeps the tension high with sequences of surprise violence.  (And there is indeed some disturbing violence here, particularly when the story calls for it to be perpetrated against non-combatants.  “Condor” aired on the Audience channel on DirecTV; I suspect its content might be too much for a regular network.)

William Hurt has always been a goddam national treasure, as far as I’m concerned.  (I may be biased in my appraisal of his work, as I grew up watching him in films like  1983’s “Gorky Park” and 1988’s “The Accidental Tourist.”  I think he’s one of the best actors out there.)  Seeing his talent colliding with Bob Balaban’s on screen should make this show required viewing for anyone who enjoys spy thrillers.  (There is an extended, loaded exchange between them in a coffee shop here that is absolutely priceless.)

The whole cast is great.  I’ve never been a fan of Brendan Fraser, simply because his movies are usually too goofy for me — but he shines in “Condor,” playing against type as an awkward villain.

Leem Lubany is terrific as the story’s merciless assassin.  (See my comments above about the violence.)  The role doesn’t call for her to have much range, as her character is a somewhat stoical sociopath.  But she looks and sounds the part — combining sex appeal with an incongruous, calm, homicidal intensity.  She reminded me a lot of Mandy, Mia Kirshner’s priceless, plot-driving assassin in Fox’s “24” (2001-2014).

If “Condor” has a failing, then it lies with its saccharine protagonists.  The screenwriters seem to have gone to great lengths to paint an edgy, unpredictable, violent world full of compromised good guys and moral ambiguity.  Why, then, are its handful of young heroes so implausibly perfect?  The putative hero is “Joe,” nicely played Max Irons, who is just fine in the role.  But the writers make him so idealistic, so gentle, so smart and so kind that it just requires too much suspension of disbelief.  At one point I even wanted to see a bad guy at least punch him in the face, simply for being a goody-goody.  It makes the story feel weird, too.  (Who wants to see Jesus in a violent spy thriller?)  The few other protagonists that we see here are also too good — they feel like thinly drawn, cookie-cutter heroes and not real people.

There are some plot implausibilities, too, that I’ve seen pointed out by other reviewers.  (I have arrived at the resignation that others are simply far more perceptive about these things than I am.)  But there was nothing that affected my enjoyment of Season 1.

“Condor” is great stuff.  I recommend it.

 

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“Beware the fury of a patient man?”

I’m pretty sure that’s John Dryden, and not a Chinese aphorism.  I learned it years ago when Tom Clancy quoted Dryden at the beginning of one of his novels.  (I can’t remember which — but I think it was one of his revenge-minded tales like “Without Remorse” or “Debt of Honor.”)  Strangely enough, Goodreads has the quote falsely attributed to Clancy himself.

But it works.  Well done, Fortune Cookie People.

The other one I got advised me, “Do not build your happiness on others’ sorrow.”  That sounds like good advice to me — and it’s a bit more high-minded than Dryden’s warning.

 

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Throwback Thursday: the “G.I. Joe Tomahawk” and the “Cobra Rattler!”

I had plenty of Hasbro’s “G.I. Joe” vehicles; the “Tomahawk” and the “Rattler” were easily my favorites.  I assiduously protected all of those detachable missiles and bombs.  I might have been a spacey kid in a lot of ways, but I was positively O.C.D. where ordnance was concerned.

God, these toys were fun.  Look at that red-clad Cobra pilot.  His outfit just screams “evil.”  His codename was “Wild Weasel.”  I suppose that might be confusing to people who actually know something about military aircraft — “Wild Weasels” were real-life Vietnam-era U.S. fighter jets designed to target Soviet surface-to-air missiles.  (The only reason I know that is because they were featured in Tom Clancy’s retro “Debt of Honor.”)

The affable-looking Joe pilot had correspondingly affable name — “Lift Ticket.”

 

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“There can be no covenants between men and lions, wolves and lambs can never be of one mind.”

I’ve run variations of that quote from Homer’s “Iliad” here at the blog before; I think the translation that I like the best is the shortest: “There are no compacts between lions and men, and wolves and lambs have no accord.”  (I read that at the preface of one of Tom Clancy’s novels — I believe it was “Clear and Present Danger.”)

The most popular translation I can find online however, is below.  (The speaker here is Achilles.)

“Fool, prate not to me about covenants. There can be no covenants between men and lions, wolves and lambs can never be of one mind, but hate each other out and out an through. Therefore there can be no understanding between you and me, nor may there be any covenants between us, till one or other shall fall and glut grim Mars with his life’s blood. Put forth all your strength; you have need now to prove yourself indeed a bold soldier and man of war. You have no more chance, and Pallas Minerva will forthwith vanquish you by my spear: you shall now pay me in full for the grief you have caused me on account of my comrades whom you have killed in battle.”

 

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A short review for the pilot of “The Last Ship” (2014)

So I finally got around to checking out “The Last Ship” (2014), and while the pilot didn’t immediately have me hooked, it seems like a decent show.  I’d rate it an 8 out of 10, and I’ll probably continue watching it.

I was surprised I’d heard so little about this program … it’s a big-budget, post-apocalyptic military science fiction series, but none of my fellow horror or sci-fi nerds mentioned having seen it.

The plot setup seems like something that would please horror fans — a virus eradicates 80 percent of the world’s population, and a lone American naval vessel elects to remain at sea.  (They’re fortunate enough to be carrying a civilian virologist who was tasked by the fallen United States government to develop a vaccine.)  And there are hints that the show’s writers would do well scripting a frightening TV series — there are a couple of nice flourishes for a serialized horror show right here in the pilot.

But the story’s horror elements are minimized in favor of a more mainstream, safe-for-general-audiences techno-thriller.  And that’s not a bad thing, because it succeeds as a such.  The show is based on a 1988 novel by William Brinkley, and it’s produced in cooperation with the United States Navy.  (The destroyers U.S.S. Halsey and the U.S.S. Dewey stand in for the fictional U.S.S. Nathan James.)  It seems smartly scripted with respect to both virology and how the military works.  I’m barely literate in either of those subjects, but what I watched seemed coolly authentic, and that entertained me and held my attention. So while I might not recommend this to fellow “The Walking Dead” fans, I’d definitely recommend it to fans of Tom Clancy.

The directing is pretty good, the story moves along quite quickly, and the action scenes in the pilot are surprisingly ambitious and effective for a TV show.

The acting, I suppose, is average — though it’s always fun seeing Adam Baldwin on screen, and the square-jawed Eric Dane seems well cast and shows promise as the ship’s commanding officer.

The dialogue and character interaction are average at best.  This isn’t high art when it comes to human storytelling.  There are some pretty predictable character tropes, and a few exchanges are so cheesily melodramatic that they nearly insult the viewer’s intelligence.  Dane’s commander faces off, for example, against a beautiful, independent, female scientist who doesn’t like following orders … gee, I wonder if we’ll see any romantic tension there?

Still, this looks like a good enough show, if its pilot is any indication.  The good outweighs the bad, and I’m glad I heard about it.

 

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“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”

Today is the Ides of March.

I suppose that Marc Antony’s speech from “Julius Caesar,” below, is the Western World’s definitive treatise on sarcasm?

I haven’t read it in its entirety since 10th grade English at Longwood High School.  In doing so now, I’m surprised at how many pop cultural references to it spring to mind:

  1.  The entire speech is beautifully riffed by the eponymous blade-wielding arch-villain in Matt Wagner’s incredible “Grendel: Devil by the Deed” (1993) as follows: “Friends, Romans, city folk — listen to me or I’ll lop off off your ears.  Let’s bury your Caesar and then let’s appraise him.”
  2. I’m guessing that Charles Bronson’s “The Evil That Men Do” (1984) is a reference to the third line?
  3. In at least one episode of “The X Files” in the 1990’s, the Well-Manicured Man angrily refers to the traitorous Syndicate as “these honorable men.”
  4. In one of his later novels (2002’s “The Bear and the Dragon,” maybe?) Tom Clancy describes a pregnant Chinese factory worker as being “made of sterner stuff.”  (I can’t remember which book, but for some strange reason I can remember that line.  Weird.)

 

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

 

— from William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”

 

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Throwback Thursday: TSR’s “Endless Quest” books!

Okay.  Who remembers these?  I do, and fondly.

I always assumed that the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that every 80’s kid remembers were inspired by the “Dungeons & Dragons” role-playing games.  But I was wrong.  Edward Packard penned the first draft of “Sugarcane Island,” the very first CYOA book, way back in 1969, half a decade before Gary Gygax and Dave Ameson at TSR released the groundbreaking first edition of “D&D” in 1974.

The “Endless Quest” books, which arrived on the scene in 1982 and 1983, conversely seem like TSR’s attempt to cash in on the CYOA phenomenon.  And they did a damn fine job, if you ask me.

These were far better written.  And they seemed aimed at older children or young adults — maybe the same target demographic that TSR was hoping would graduate shortly thereafter to its RPG’s.  A few of them arrived under the Christmas tree for me when I was, oh … maybe in the fifth grade or so.  And I was thrilled to discover that they were frikkin’ awesome.

They were slightly different than the CYOA books.  For one, the “you” described in the story wasn’t really a reader avatar. It was already a fully realized character, with a backstory in the context of a TSR fantasy universe.  The diverging storyline options were less random, too — they were all part of a larger, more detailed and coherent overall story.

Maybe the “Endless Quest” books didn’t appeal as much to every kid.  They certainly weren’t as popular as CYOA.  A more detailed story meant far more text in each book’s introduction, and in the “choice” sections.  That meant fewer choices could be made within the length of the book.  If memory serves, for example, you had to read 11 or 12 pages to set up the story in “Mountain of Mirrors” in order to reach the first junction of the narrative.  My best friend and next-door neighbor, Shawn Degnan, complained about that.

All of my books were authored by Roses Estes.  I think my favorite was “Dungeon of Dread.”  That had a straightforward story that most closely resembled a game of “D&D;” you proceeded room to room in a dungeon, fighting monsters in turn.  And monsters appealed slightly more to this grade-school boy than magic swords and spellcasting and codes of honor and such.

In fact, “Dungeon of Dread” boasted what remains one of my all-time favorite monsters to this day — the wicked-cool, alliteratively named “water weird.”  You entered a room with an ornate well at the center, where a stone-inscribed warning advised you to “Watch The Water That Is Not Water.”  If you failed to be so circumspect, then the quite ordinary-looking clear water in that well would magically form up into the shape of a serpent and rip your goddam head off.  (I don’t think that this is much of a spoiler, as the water weird and its method of attack is depicted right there on the book’s cover; you can see it below.)  A smarter child might have wondered why whoever built this dungeon and placed the creature there would also include a helpful PSA about how to avoid the monster.  But that didn’t occur to me at the time.

It was a fairly dark fantasy book, too, at times.  One room revealed the fate of a less fortunate adventurer — he had been captured by some unknown bad guy, and chained to a wall where a running fountain of fresh water was easily reached.  His cruel captor had deliberately fated him to starve to death.

“Mountain of Mirrors” was my second favorite “Endless Quest” book; it had frost giants.  Yes, the intro was lengthy, but Estes did a great job in establishing a sense of setting for a freezing cold mountain range.  I enjoyed “Revolt of the Dwarves” slightly less; it was a little strange to see dwarves cast as antagonists when I they were the good guys in the animated film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”

The only book about which I felt equivocal was Estes’ “The Hero of Washington Square.”  That wasn’t even a fantasy adventure at all. It was just some average kid getting swept up in a spy adventure — it was based on a different RPG created by TSR called “Top Secret.”  “The Hero of Washington Square” was a toothless adventure that seemed more aimed at younger kids, if I recall.  It was lame.  It had little in common with the James Bond films that I absolutely loved, even if I did grow up in the Roger Moore era.  And my love for Tom Clancy’s universe would only bloom many years later, when I read my sister’s thick paperback copy of “The Cardinal of the Kremlin” the summer before college.

The Internet informs me that the “Endless Quest” books are still easily purchased.  They were rereleased in 2008.  And they’re edited now so that “you” are described in gender-neutral language, so that girls can better enjoy the books.

I honestly would recommend these for older children or pre-teens.  Parents, keep these in mind for Christmas.

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