Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
2014 - 105 minutes
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Adam Cozad, David Koepp
Starring: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Kiera Knightly, Kenneth Branagh
It’s probably a good thing that all these recent C.I.A./F.B.I./general fixer films have names in the titles, as it’s getting difficult to distinguish Jack Ryan from the Jason Bournes and Jack Reachers of the cinematic universe. Then again, the latest Bourne film didn’t even feature Bourne, so who knows? Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit does feature a young Jack Ryan, so there’s that, but the name is really only there to draw fans of the character created by late novelist Tom Clancy. This is not a direct adaptation of a Clancy novel – unlike the four previous Ryan films which featured Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck to various levels of success, it is a reboot of the character to fit into the post-9/11, post-Great Recession espionage world. There’s computer hacking, a terrorist plot, and elaborate ruses mixed with a bit of requisite action, all of which is presented skillfully, though nothing rises too far above being merely competent.
Inspired to join the Marines after 9/11, Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is injured in Afghanistan and overcomes a debilitating back injury with the help of med student Cathy (Kiera Knightly). Along with his physical resolve, Ryan’s well-thought-out military tactics and attention to detail catches the eye of C.I.A. operative Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner). Harper persuades Ryan to join the agency as an analyst and a decade later – meaning 2014 – he’s working on Wall Street to covertly uncover financial data that may point to terrorist activity and support.
Mysterious accounts originating from a Russian company helmed by Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) throw up red flags and Ryan is sent to Moscow to investigate and audit Cherevin’s firm – a firm with a logo that bears a striking resemblance to Enron’s, which can’t be a good sign. Also not a good sign is an attempt on Ryan’s life, which places him at the center of Cherevin’s grand scheme. Assisted by Harper, his C.I.A. team, and Cathy (his now longtime fiancée), Ryan must uncover and stop the nefarious plan.
Pulling double duty as onscreen villain and director, Branagh shows a perfect understanding of the kind of film he’s making; he hits the menacing inflection of his harsh Russian accent, and keeps the action and spy games moving briskly, but in ways that are easily understood. The assassination attempt of Ryan, a frantic chase through the streets of Moscow, and an elaborate computer data heist are exciting without being over-the-top ridiculous. Also, if the term “generic” could ever be used as a complement it would be here, as the action is fun in the moment without a sense that the high tech hokum will feel laughably dated in a few short years.
Performances are perfectly adequate across the board. Costner’s measured delivery evokes his paternal, protective relationship with Ryan, while Knightly – though she functions mostly as a plot necessity, showing up when needed to become part of the C.I.A. plan and then to be its damsel in distress – is believable as fiancée turned co-conspirator. Pine is the standout and for the second time shoulders the load as leader of a reboot, after playing Captain Kirk in the J.J. Abrams-helmed Star Trek films. In both instances he displays the right mix of intelligence and action hero, providing more brashness to Kirk and more calculated determination to Ryan.
The major issues with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit are revealed in a forced climax that includes another frantic car chase (including a motorcycle that presents itself at just the right time), along with a fistfight around a van full of explosives and a digital countdown clock. The grand finale is preceded by a sequence on a cargo plane where Ryan and his team quickly connect all the necessary dots of information to know who they’re looking for and where they’re planning to strike. While it captures a sense of frantic desperation, it also smacks of exposition dump, there only to get us up to speed quickly before enjoying the screeching tires and flying fists. It’s not a fatal flaw as, after all, this is a no apologies piece of spy/action genre that’s fun in the moment and holds up well enough to scrutiny before drifting from memory. It’s simply straight ahead, quality entertainment, and a much better alternative to much of the dreck polluting the multiplex this January.
© 2013 by Blake Crane