This week’s new films reviewed

CIA analyst Chris Pine becomes embroiled in a deadly international plot in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT (12A)

Chris Pine is Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit

Chris Pine is Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit

Dedicated to the memory of Tom Clancy, who died in October 2013, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is an old-fashioned espionage thriller, which revives the writer’s most popular fictional character.

Unlike The Hunt For Red October, Patriot Games, Clear And Present Danger or The Sum Of All Fears, Kenneth Branagh’s film is not adapted from a specific book in the series.

Instead, scriptwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp transplant the eponymous CIA operative into a modern-day terrorist scenario to lay the foundations for a new big screen franchise.

It’s solid, bombastic entertainment, punctuated by outrageous, briskly edited action sequences that owe a sizeable debt to The Bourne Identity and its influential sequels.

Cozad and Koepp meld present and past, harking back to the Cold War to generate friction between global superpowers America and Russia, then playing out a deadly game of cat and mouse using state-of-the-art technology.

The central plot, to de-stabilise one country’s austerity-battered economy using the financial markets, seems frighteningly plausible.

The daredevil stunts and skirmishes are anything but.

Branagh’s film opens with footage of the September 11 attacks then jumps forwards two years to conflict in Afghanistan.

Enemy forces shoot down a US Marine Corps helicopter. On board is Second Lieutenant Jack Ryan (Chris Pine), who incurs massive damage to his spine.

Thanks to encouragement from medical student Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), Jack learns to walk again and fatherly CIA agent William Harper (Kevin Costner) encourages Jack to return to university to complete his economics degree.

A decade later, Jack is married to Cathy and firmly in the CIA fold, looking for irregularities in overseas finance transactions that could tip the wink to future terrorist activity.

Recent findings suggest an imminent strike that could cripple the US economy. However, Jack has no way to verify his data from the confines of a desk.

So Handler promotes Jack to field agent and dispatches him to Moscow to follow up on his hunch.

While in Russia, Jack meets an enigmatic businessman called Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), who seems to be at the centre of the diabolical plot.

The mission is complicated by the presence in Moscow of Jack’s disgruntled wife, who doesn’t know her husband works for the CIA.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is solid, undemanding popcorn entertainment that doesn’t deviate from a well-worn path.

Pine is a likeable leading man but on-screen chemistry with Knightley is lukewarm at best.

Branagh downplays his villain when some Alan Rickman-style wild overacting might have injected some welcome levity into the deadly serious proceedings.

Big set pieces are orchestrated at a lick, including a climactic race through the traffic-clogged streets of Manhattan replete with the hoariest of narrative chestnuts: a bomb ticking down to doomsday.

RATING: 6/10

GRUDGE MATCH (12A)

Towards the end of Peter Segal’s comedy drama about two retired boxing adversaries who are lured back into the ring, a bruised Sylvester Stallone turns to Robert De Niro and growls, “Want to do this again?”.

With rivulets of sweat and blood trickling into his swollen eyes, De Niro wearily responds, “Definitely not”.

That’s exactly how we feel about Grudge Match – relieved that this sorry mess has reached its final round, and secretly hopeful that someone might throw in the towel to put both the actors and us out of our misery.

On paper, a showdown between the Hollywood heavyweights from Rocky and Raging Bull sounds like a knock-out.

Regrettably, once the boxing ends and the talking begins, Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman’s script punches well below its weight.

Flimsy soap opera-style plot strands are drizzled with mawkish sentiment, and Oscar winners Alan Arkin and Kim Basinger are squandered in thankless supporting roles.

The puerility of the humour is exemplified by Kelleher and Rothman’s decision to name one pivotal character after a sexual act in order to contrive a limp running gag about butterscotch jellybeans.

In their 1980s heyday, Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro) were fierce rivals.

Each man recorded one decisive victory over the other but before the eagerly anticipated rematch, Razor announced his retirement, effectively ending McDonnen’s career as well.

Thirty years later, wise-cracking boxing promoter Dante Slate Jr (Kevin Hart) hires the two men to provide motion-capture footage for a videogame and in the green screen studio, Sharp and McDonnen trade blows.

Video footage of the skirmish goes viral, sparking interest in a rematch, which Slate crudely christens Grudgement Day.

McDonnen is excited.

“I see the camera adds 10 pounds,” he grins, looking at video footage of the altercation.

“So how do you explain the other 20?” retorts Sharp.

Eventually, the two old-timers agree to head back into the ring, despite misgivings from old flame Sally (Kim Basinger).

Razor turns to former trainer Louis “Lightning” Conlon (Alan Arkin) to get him into physical shape while McDonnen draws strength from his long-lost biological son, BJ (Jon Bernthal), and precocious grandson Trey (Camden Gray).

Grudge Match puffs and wheezes through the motions, stoking animosity between the leads en route to a climatic final showdown that is physically gruelling, yet emotionally underpowered.

Stallone looks like he could floor De Niro with a single blow but we suspend disbelief as the script flings various obstacles in the fighters’ paths and engineers sappy reconciliations.

Basinger’s on-screen chemistry with Stallone is completely inert and potty-mouthed punchlines hit the canvas with a dull thud.

The script is down for the count in the opening round.

RATING: 4/10

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (15)

In a year littered with terrific films and eye-catching performances, one or two gems were always going to be short-changed at the Academy Awards nominations.

Few could have predicted that Joel and Ethan Coen, who won four golden statuettes for No Country For Old Men and Fargo, would be among those casualties when they were armed with this delightful and artfully composed comedy drama.

Admittedly, Inside Llewyn Davis moves to its own soft beat, the colour palette is earthy and the humour dry rather than laugh-out-loud funny.

But the script is peppered with polished one-liners, the direction elegant and performances are exemplary.

Every frame beautifully harks back to the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s.

Like the central character, essayed by Oscar Isaac who should have usurped Christian Bale on the Oscars shortlist, the Coens’ film has been unfairly overshadowed.

Isaac plays the eponymous musician, who has yet to recover from the suicide of his singing partner.

He ricochets from one gig to the next, begging for temporary refuge on the couches of friends including Mitch Gorfein (Ethan Phillips) and his wife Lillian (Robin Bartlett).

By accident, Llewyn lets out the Gorfeins’ cat and he embarks on a mission to track down the feline before his hosts notice the animal is missing.

Thankfully, Llewyn locates the animal but since he is unable to return it to the locked apartment, the singer-songwriter takes his four-legged nemesis to the flat of friends Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), who are also a singing duo.

Jean’s frustrations with Llewyn soon boil over but Llewyn still crashes at Jean and Jim’s flat, with a cheery Army recruit and aspiring folk singer called Troy Nelson (Stark Sands).

When the Gorfeins’ cat escapes for a second time, Llewyn resigns himself to telling them the horrible truth and heads to Chicago for an important audition in the company of drug-addicted jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his driver Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund).

Interspersed with musical performances by the cast, Inside Llewyn Davis is another offbeat character study from the Coens proving what goes around, comes around.

Isaac is terrific, weathering each outrageous misfortune with the same look of mournful resignation, while Mulligan plays effectively against type as a feisty independent woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind.

Colourful supporting performances provide bookmarks for Llewyn’s journey of self-discovery and the cat, which lands the protagonist in trouble, inevitably provides one of the film’s comical highpoints.

RATING: 8.5/10

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (15)

Everybody hurts in August: Osage County, adapted for the screen by Tracy Letts from his 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play.

Some of the dysfunctional family at the film’s emotional core suffer superficial wounds: dents to foolish pride, bruises to overinflated egos, grazes from expertly tossed verbal barbs.

However, many of this conflicted clan are not so fortunate, harbouring deep psychological scars that have festered for years and are now beyond repair.

Death is the only salvation from this misery.

In the meantime, family members react to the constant throb of anguish and self-loathing by lashing out at nearest and dearest in a futile attempt to feel better about their pitiful excuse for an existence.

John Wells’ film opens in the calm before an inevitable storm with grizzled patriarch Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) hiring a Native American woman called Johnna (Misty Upham) as a live-in carer and cook for his pill-popping, terminally ill wife, Violet (Meryl Streep).

Soon after, Beverly vanishes from his rural Oklahoma homestead and his lifeless body is recovered five days later in a nearby lake.

Violet telephones her three daughters for support and they dutifully, if reluctantly, rally to her desperate cause.

Youngest child Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) lives nearby while oldest child Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives from out of town with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their disgruntled 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin).

Flighty middle child Karen (Juliette Lewis) is last to materialise, waltzing into town with her new beau, sleazy Florida businessman Steve Heidebrecht (Dermot Mulroney).

Violet’s waspish sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her long-suffering husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their socially awkward son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) also crowd around the dinner table, where drug-addled Violet insists on serving up bile-slathered insults alongside Johnna’s lovingly prepared meal.

“You’re in rare form today, Vi,” quips Charles, hoping to dissipate some of the tension with humour, but his sister-in-law is spoiling for a fight.

“I’m just truth-telling,” she retorts. “Some people get antagonised by the truth.”

Set largely within the claustrophobic Weston house on a sweltering summer’s afternoon, August: Osage County cannot escape its theatrical origins.

Wells’ camerawork is largely static, relying on Letts’s dialogue to set the brisk tempo.

He harnesses tour-de-force performances from the ensemble cast.

Streep is in blistering form, baiting her eldest daughter for a heated response with each swingeing sideswipe: “If you’d had more than one child, you’d know a parent always has favourites.”

Fellow Oscar nominee Roberts is equally impressive, finally losing her cool in a hysterical scene with a plate of fish.

Martindale is mesmerising while Brits abroad McGregor and Cumberbatch offer solid accents in slightly underwritten supporting roles.

Like so many family gatherings, the film ends in tears, recriminations and the unsettling promise of more damage to come.

RATING: 8/10