THE movie “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” which opens in theaters this weekend, revolves around an American C.I.A. analyst first introduced in Tom Clancy’s 1984 novel “The Hunt for Red October.” The source material isn’t the only thing that’s a little creaky. Ryan’s destination is Moscow, his target a Russian businessman plotting to crash the American economy through a terrorist attack. In portraying the diabolical oligarch Viktor Cherevin, Kenneth Branagh delivers his lines in the thick, menacingly slow accent that defines Eastern European baddies on screen: “You think this is game, Jack?”
Nearly 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell and marked the end of the Cold War, Hollywood’s go-to villains remain Russians. The last few years alone have seen a sadistic ex-K.G.B. agent (“The Avengers”), crooked Russian officials (“A Good Day to Die Hard”), Russian hit men (“The Tourist”), a Russian spy (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), a Russian-American loan shark (“Limitless”) and so many Russian gangsters they have displaced Italians as film’s favored thugs (“Jack Reacher,” “Safe,” “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas,” among others).
Screenwriters even managed to vilify Russia in “Gravity,” a movie that features only three on-screen actors and takes place almost entirely in orbit. The space debris that imperils the American astronauts was caused by a Russian missile.
Meanwhile, on television, “The Americans,” a cable drama about Soviet spies embedded in Reagan-era America, returns for a second season next month.
Still, it doesn’t make for as powerful drama as it once did.
If you grew up during the Cold War, you viewed Russians with a potent mix of hatred and fear, and felt in your gut that a nuclear war between our countries could erupt any second, obliterating everybody and everything. That’s why movies like “The Day After” and “Threads” were so visceral. I doubt today’s teenage moviegoers are walking around with the same mixed-up feelings about the Russians. Ivan Drago, the Soviet-bred fighting machine who battled Rocky Balboa in 1985, may have been absurd but he was a fall guy for his time. Has our pop culture not moved beyond “Rocky IV”?
Movie villainy did become more globalized in the final days of the Cold War and afterward. You had South Africans (“Lethal Weapon 2”), Germans (“Die Hard”), Palestinians (“True Lies”). Recently, Albanians (“Taken”) and Somalis (“Captain Phillips”) have entered the action-film fray. And Iranians have been featured in the Showtime TV series “Homeland.” But Russians remain our tried-and-true boogeymen, regardless of current politics. In the ’90s, Bill Clinton had a friendly relationship with Boris Yeltsin, and it wasn’t so long ago that George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin shared bro time at the ranch in Crawford, Tex. — periods that brought us the nuclear showdown flick “Crimson Tide,” and “Miracle,” about the United States victory over the Russian hockey team at the 1980 Olympics.
The Russian government hasn’t helped to soften its bad-guy image. Recent decisions like granting Edward Snowden asylum and supporting President Bashar al-Assad of Syria are reminders that Russia still takes positions antagonistic toward the United States. And the country’s shadowy reputation for espionage was not improved when a spy ring was uncovered in 2010 in suburban New Jersey (though “Salt,” which starred Angelina Jolie as a Russian sleeper spy, seemed to benefit from the news, as did “The Americans”). And as the world gears up for the Winter Olympics in Sochi next month, concerns surround Russia’s political motives and human rights record.
Nonetheless, the Slavic bad guy has become a movie cliché, and like all clichés it lacks its former power.
Hollywood, we’re increasingly reminded, makes movies for a worldwide audience. Two of the greatest global threats of our time — terrorism and a financial Armageddon — are frightening, complicated subjects perfect for action thrillers. This time out, though, the filmmakers behind “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” may have chosen the right subject but the wrong villain. After all, the American economy did crash. But it wasn’t the Russians who did it.