Chris Hewitt: Shadow Recruit
Somebody’s pulling me close to the ground. I can hear, but I can’t see.
The immortal words of Carlito Brigante, there, but right now they apply equally to me. I am being pulled close to the ground - dragged along a corridor by two burly goons who keep telling me to shut up every time I ask where we are - and I can hear, but I can’t see, thanks to the hood they’ve thrust over my head. The black isn’t quite of the pitch variety, but it’s damn close, and my breathing is very loud. Probably because I’m breathing quite fast. You tend to breathe quite fast when two burly goons drag you out of a car and pull a hood over your hood, just the capper to a day during which I’ve been stalked, chased, shot at and kidnapped.
They drag me into a room. It’s deathly quiet. They plonk me into a chair. Silence. All there is is my breathing. Then they whip the hood off and, after my eyes have adjusted to the shining light, I see the evil mastermind behind the whole nefarious scheme.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
A typical Monday for me goes something like this. I wake up, I potter around the flat for a bit, I get dressed and go into work where we have an issue meeting at 10am.
This is not a typical Monday.
The day before I received a tweet from Paramount Pictures, informing me that I was about to experience a day as a spy. #RecruitedHewitt was the hashtag, they said. I had no more information, but a tweet like that can set a man on edge.
So it’s 9am, and I’m about to leave my flat in North London. My living room window looks out into the street below, and as I look out I notice a car down below, parked outside my local pub. A black Mercedes, with the engine running. That’s unusual in itself - around here, the wardens pounce like raptors - but I also notice that there are two guys sitting in the car. And I could have sworn one just looked in my direction. I try to think nothing of it. I grab my bag, put on my jacket, head out the door.
As I get into the street, I head for the bus, only to remember I haven’t renewed my Oyster. I change direction suddenly, bound into my nearest newsagent’s. As I do so, I pass behind the black Merc. When I come out of the newsagent’s, it’s gone.
I look around for the car - my Spidey-sense suddenly tingling, the lessons of a thousand spy movies racing through my brain - and then I see it at the traffic lights by the newsagent’s. Almost as if they were watching me, lost me when I made my unexpected detour, and raced around the block to try to look for me.
Paranoia is a wonderful thing. I board my bus, I get to the tube station and I head into work. And today, more than any other, I scan the faces of my fellow commuters with great interest. Are they watching me? Is that guy really listening to music or is he getting instructions from SMERSH, or SPECTRE, or ACRONYM? Did that woman just do a furtive double-take when she saw me? Did I just stand on that bloke’s foot? Oh God, have I inadvertently triggered World War III by standing on a bloke’s foot on the Piccadilly Line?
No. I haven’t. When I get to Covent Garden station and emerge above ground, the world hasn’t been vaporised. All ist gut. Convinced my paranoia is just a byproduct of a slightly overactive imagination, I walk to work. And then, just as I’m about to go through the doors of Empire Towers, a man bumps into me. He asks me something. I can’t hear him - I’m listening to music (Rebecca Ferguson’s new album, if you must know, although I’d deny that in court with my dying breath; it’s actually really good) - but I take out my earphones. What? I ask, just like a spy would. “Do you know the way to Leicester Square, mate?” he says.
Confused, I sweep my arm in the vague direction of Leicester Square and, satisfied, he nods and sets off. Believe me, nobody would ever make it to Leicester Square with my directions. They’d walk into at least three lampposts and end up in Kentish Town. But off he pops.
I head into the office. Greet my workmates. Prepare to face the day. I’ve got some arduous admin to take care off.
And then a phone rings in my jacket pocket. Not my phone - that’s already on my desk. Another phone. A phone I didn’t put there.
I pick it up. The screen says ‘pick up the phone’. It doesn’t say ‘please’, but I do it anyway. And a dark, mysterious voice on the other end of the line tells me to sit down and look at the TV to my right. I do, and then he appears.
Sir Kenneth Branagh, director of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
He’s on the telly, which shouldn’t be a surprise in itself. Kenneth Branagh has been on my telly for years, whether it’s in Wallander or his numerous movies or in the special photostream I’ve created entitled ‘Branagh: A Life In Pictures’. But today he’s talking to me. He says my name. He tells me I’ve been activated. He asks me if I’m ready for the challenges. He says something else, but to tell you the truth I’ve stopped listening. It’s easy to stop listening when a knight of the realm asks you to become a spy for the day.
The video stops. The man on the other end of the line - who is not Kenneth Branagh but, I presume, one of Branagh’s minions or maybe a trusted neighbour - asks me if I wish to accept the challenge. I have no choice. I can’t let Sir Ken down, even if Wikipedia says he supports Spurs.
The voice tells me to go to the Prince Charles Cinema - the great second-run cinema in Leicester Square - and sit in seat C9 of the upstairs screen, and await further instructions. I do so without too much in the way of delay. I may have stopped to have a biscuit.
When I get to the PCC, the doors are open. This is unnerving. It’s 10am. I wander upstairs and find the screening room totally empty. I sit in C9 like a good little boy, and wait… and wait… and wait.
And then a man comes in and sits behind me. I turn to look at him, but he stops me with a hand on my shoulder. It’s important I don’t see his face, he says. Now I’m beginning to worry why. Maybe he doesn’t have a face. Maybe he’s wearing a Lionel Blair mask.
As he talks, slides flash up on the screen in front of us. A man with a beard - a cyber surveillance expert, I’m told. Then a bald man who looks like he came third in a Vin Diesel look-a-like contest. I am told that this man has been watching me all morning, and he is an enemy operative. To underline this, the words ‘Enemy Operative’ are written above his head. I’m told to look out for him. This will be considerably easier if the words ‘Enemy Operative’ appear above his head in real life.
I’m told to go to a cafe in Kingly Court, just off Carnaby Street and meet another agent. I’m told to take a prescribed route. Thankfully, their directions are more comprehensive than my vague ‘Leicester Square is yonder’ nonsense. I memorise the route.
The man tells me to wait 30 seconds after he’s gone before leaving. This is just like a spy movie. Funny, that.
He leaves. I pass the time by tweeting. Bet James Bond never passes the time by tweeting. And then I leave.
When I emerge, I emerge into a world that seems the same, but somehow different. Now I’m aware that I’m being watched, it’s a world cloaked in deception, shrouded in conspiracy. Everyone and everything is a potential threat. It doesn’t help that the black Mercedes I saw this morning is parked across the street from the PCC. Friend or foe? I don’t know, but either way they’ve got a bit of cash.
I walk to the cafe without incident, although it’s great fun imagining that everyone I meet is watching me. Spy movie music plays incessantly in my head as I enter the empty courtyard, on my left I see a bit of movement. I glance in its direction and come face-to-face with…
The Enemy Operative.
I freeze. What do I do in this situation? I can’t kill him. Too many witnesses, plus I don’t know how. Plus there’s the possibility he’s not an enemy operative at all, but a jobbing actor and how would I explain that to Equity?
Equally, though, I can’t let him know that I know that he knows that I know that he knows that I know that he knows that I know.
Thankfully, the decision is taken out of my hands when I turn to my right and see the man I’m supposed to meet. He beckons me over, and I go to sit down opposite him. “No,” he hisses, “the other table.” Ooh, another great spy movie trope. The old Two Men Talking To Each Other At Different Tables So As Not To Arouse Suspicion trick. I suspect real spies have a better codename for it.
He tells me I’m being watched. That I will now be picked up by a man in a black Audi. And then he tells me that we’re going to switch bags. This is exciting. I’ve never switched bags in a public place before.
He gets up and takes my bag. I wait the requisite 30 seconds, as outlined in chapter 3 of Spying For Dummies, and take his bag, which is identical in every way. I stand up, and head onto Beak Street.
It’s only when I get there that I realise two things: the Enemy Operative is still on my tail (he ducks out of sight when I try to snap him on my cameraphone and yell horrible things about The Pacifier), and the operative I swapped bags with now has my iPad and my headphones.
Too late - a black Audi screeches up. “Get in!” shouts the driver. I get in. And we zoom off… into London rush hour traffic. Which is to say, we remain on Beak Street while some workmen do the world’s slowest reversing manoeuvre.
My driver introduces himself. He’s a fellow operative. His name’s Dan, but his real name’s Dan. Dan is just a name he uses to protect his real identity. Which is also Dan. This is clever.
He tells me that he thinks we’re being followed, but he’s going to try to lose the culprits by heading out of London. We stutter into London traffic, but it soon clears up, which confirms Dan-Dan’s suspicions. We are being followed, by another black Merc. I turn around and there it is. Dan-Dan changes lanes, and it follows. Dan-Dan shoots through a red light to lose them, and it follows. Dan-Dan takes us by Brent Cross, and they don’t turn off to explore the great bargains in the John Lewis Winter Sale.
They’re following us, alright. I ask who they are. Dan-Dan doesn’t know. He suspects they may be mixed up with a Russian agency. I have my doubts - it could be people still angry about my Attack of the Clones review. It was a long time ago, guys. Let it go.
“I’m going to lose them,” says Dan-Dan. And so begins a hair-raising car chase up and down hills, and around sharp bends of country roads that could, to the more cynical amongst you, look like a test track used by racing drivers at Millbrook, a facility near Milton Keynes used by all the top car companies and Top Gear. I ask Dan-Dan if he’s The Stig. He says he’s not, but he sure does drive like him, accelerating sharply, veering around acute bends and taking dips and bumps with aplomb. It’s all I can do to not wave my gun around, lest it go off accidentally and Marvin-in-Pulp-Fiction us both.
Ah, did I not mention the gun? Turns out that’s what I was supplied with when we swapped bags. It was in there in a black container. What sort of gun was it? A black one with a pointy bit at the end. Apparently we’re on our way to a training facility, where a nice man will teach me which way the pointy bit is meant to work… but the black hearts in the black Merc, including our old friend, Enemy Operative, have other ideas.
Dan-Dan, though, has other other ideas, and he manages to lose them in quite spectacular fashion. Our tail is lost. The Enemy Operative is no more. Commiserations to Mrs Enemy Operative and their kids Snarl and Menace. Donations in lieu of flowers to the Enemy Operatives Benevolent Fund.
Threat neutralised, Dan-Dan speeds on through Milton Keynes to a secret facility - actually the HQ of Spy Games, the company behind today’s little exercise - where I’m going to be taught how to handle myself in a firefight situation. I explain to Double D that there aren’t enough hours in the day to teach me how to handle myself in a firefight, but it’s too late. We’re here.
I jump out of the car to be met by a guy called Dave Thomas. Dave won’t tell you if you ask, but from his body language and the way he comports himself, you can tell that he has a military background. He can handle himself. He was probably in the SAS, or at the very least the TA. It’s not hard to imagine him doing Black Ops, whereas the most I’ve ever done was Black Ops II.
Dave takes me into a large warehouse lined with painted targets and guns of all shapes and sizes. Then, with a brisk but efficient manner that suggests he’s shot a bunch of men in Reno just to watch them die, Dave takes me through loading my gun - with blanks, although care still has to be taken at all times (I decide not to tell him that earlier, just before the car chase, I pointed the gun at my face, thinking it wasn’t loaded; it was) - assuming the correct stance (left leg forward, right arm extended, left hand linking under it in a V shape - none of this one-handed movie action hero nonsense) and firing.
I fire. It’s incredibly loud. I clear the chamber (using my left hand, the right remains on the gun at all times) and fire again into the chest of a wooden target. There goes the other ear.
Dave, who now has to use 888 subtitles, declares that I’m ready for a combat situation. I suspect that I’m being fast-tracked - Jack Ryan may be a pencil-pusher by trade, but it’s hard to believe they’d declare him ready for the field after firing a gun just twice.
Dave says he’ll be with me every step of the way, which is reassuring. And then, like a real-life action hero, he kicks open the door of the warehouse and I run into a junkyard, lined with the corpses and shells of cars and vans. Oh, and about five guys in balaclavas, firing at us both.
“LEFT! LEFT! LEFT!” shouts Dave, dragging us left, behind cover of a pipe. He commands me to stand up and fire. I do so, taking out one of the bad guys with unerring accuracy. Although secretly I suspect that this is like a slightly more realistic version of the cops and robbers games we used to play in school, that my shot was actually nowhere near my target and that he decided to ‘die’ out of sheer politeness.
“RIGHT! RIGHT! RIGHT!” yells Dave and we go right right right, behind a car. Two more goons are dispatched by my bullets of justice - or, more likely, long-standing but hitherto undetected health problems that kick in at that very moment.
“HOW MANY LEFT? WHERE ARE THEY?” yells Dave and now I’m beginning to think he’s angry with me for being desperately unfit (I can hear my knees groaning as we bend down - as we BEND DOWN, for the love of God) and rather useless. In a real combat situation, my brains would be smeared over any wall in the general vicinity by now.
‘Uh, there’s a couple left by the burgundy car,’ I start to stammer, meekly, but Dave doesn’t like this.
“TALK TO ME, WHERE ARE THEY, HOW MANY ARE LEFT!” bellows Dave, managing the tricky feat of shouting in ALL CAPS, but somehow going up in font size. I tell him where they are and fire some shots in their general direction. I’ve got these balaclava bastards running scared.
Dave’s had enough. He produces something from his pocket. “GRENADE!” he shouts and throws it. Grenade? I think. In a war game? That’s a bit muc - and then the fireball whooshes up, larger than life and considerably hotter to boot. Blimey.
Bad guys taken out, Dave walks me back to the Spy Games HQ. I feel different, somehow. Killing a man… it changes you. Looking into his balaclava-shrouded eyes as the last bit of vitality and comprehension ebbs away from them… i imagine it can have a lasting effect.
Dave tells me that my training is complete, and now I just have one more task. I head into the building and there I am met by the Cyber Surveillance Expert whose picture I had seen on the screen of the Prince Charles just a few hours before. Turns out that Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is largely concerned with cyber-terrorism and this chap - let’s call him Ben - is here to teach me a thing or two about beefing up my cyber security.
It’s an engrossing conversation, although I don’t understand a word he’s saying. It’s all about ports and using passwords that aren’t pa55w0rd, as if that actually works. But smiling and nodding is enough to see me through, and when Dan-Dan comes in to tell me that we’re ready to head back to London, I shake Ben’s hand and we part the very best of friends.
Dan-Dan and I leave through the front door, and he’s telling me that we’re going to be back in no time when my heart leaps through my mouth.
That’s because of the car that screeches up in front of the building, and the two balaclava-clad guys with guns who leap out, yelling and screaming at us to get down on the ground. Dan-Dan, who earlier told me that he’s armed and would protect me in any situation, is next to useless and complies with their instructions. And then I look up into the gleaming eyes of… Enemy Operative as he strides toward me, grabs me, frog-marches me towards the car and bundles me in. Scrunched up on the back seat of the car, they take off at great speed. I’m not ashamed to say that I may have whimpered. (In the footage that accompanies this piece, take a look at my reaction when the goons pull up - that’s genuine ‘was-not-expecting-this-my-day-is-over’ fear…)
After a short while, the car shrieks to a halt. The Enemy Operative drags me out and I see how they’re going to take me back to London - a helicopter is waiting in a field.
I’m marched across and unceremoniously loaded onto the helicopter. Enemy Operative gets in beside me, and we take off. I’ve never been in a helicopter before. Even though I’ve been kidnapped, I’m quite excited and can’t wait to see the sights… And then the hood goes over my eyes.
To be fair to Enemy Operative - whose name, it turns out, is Lee - he does take the hood off as we enter London, allowing me to see the sights of the capital stretching out beneath us. We fly over my flat - literally - at one point, then there’s the Thames, and we fly directly over my favourite building in London, Battersea Power Station. Thankfully we don’t hit any inflatable pigs.
Touching down at Battersea Heliport, I’m bundled out of the helicopter and into a waiting van. The hood is put back on. Blackness all around. All I can hear is the mocking laughter of the Enemy Operative, who still hasn’t broken character even though it’s gone 5.30pm and he must be on overtime by now, and my laboured breathing.
Then, out of the van, into a building, down corridors, and into that room and the seat where we started this. The hood is whipped off and the evil mastermind is revealed as…
Kenneth Branagh. With a huge smile on his face.
I’ve never called a national treasure and a knight of the realm a ‘bastard’ before, but I come bloody close here. Instead, I settle for git. Sir Ken grills me, with boyish enthusiasm, on the details of my day - you can see the conversation in the video - and then off he bounds. He has a premiere to go to.
As for me, I’ve been invited, but how can I go to a movie premiere when I’ve had my eyes opened to the dangers of the world (plus, I’m hosting a Q&A at the Apple Store)? Silently, I zip up my coat and step outside the Corinthia Hotel, scanning every passer-by with suspicion. I walk into the cold, dark London night - Chris Hewitt: Shadow Recruit, ready to start a new adventure and make the world a little safer, one Enemy Operative at a time.