‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ review: Kenneth Branagh thriller ‘plays everything too close to the middle’
It’s been 12 years since CIA analyst Jack Ryan made his last motion picture appearance. The movie was The Sum of All Fears, those fears being fully realized by virtue of Ben Affleck playing Ryan. If Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit proves anything, it’s that in the ensuing dozen years, CIA analysts, spies, and various black windbreaker-sporting government underlings have learned to type very fast. Indeed, there’s a lot of typing in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a lot of button-mashing on laptops and cell phones and a lot of barking new directives in response to the button mashing on laptops and cell phones. The lightning-fast retrieval of bad guy info might be a boon to the American agents entrusted with stopping a Russian plot to sink the U.S economy, but it’s just another familiar component in a rather push button genre exercise whose thrills are conveyed with pleasant obligation rather than inspiration and fun.
One can argue that director Kenneth Branagh (a previously canny choice for the first Thor movie) is attempting a throwback to the energetic, slightly cheesy spy thrillers of the ’90s (Phillip Noyce pulled this off with Salt). But really, Branagh directs as if he’s trying not to screw up a big-stakes reboot for Paramount. Carefully hewing to genre conventions without adding any fresh stylistic flourishes, Branagh and company make a fairly poor case for the resurrection of Tom Clancy’s signature character.
Chris Pine as Jack Ryan
With Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Paramount is doubling down on Chris Pine as their franchise superstar. Pine’s youthful swagger made him a surprisingly perfect choice to play Captain Kirk in the studio’s 2009 Star Trek reboot. He is less of a natural fit for Jack Ryan. As previously played by Affleck, Alec Baldwin, and Harrison Ford, Ryan’s sense of square-jawed, unidirectional purpose rarely allowed for thoughts other than the geopolitical task at hand. Pine, with his large eyes and pillowy lips, is such a puppy dog it’s hard to believe he’d last very long when tasked with almost single-handedly tackling mountainous Ugandan bodyguards, sadistic Russians, terrorist plots, and the tanking of the U.S. economy.
In the rough and tumble spy genre, Chris Pine is a boy, barely a man, which might work earlier on since the film is an origin story (much like The Sum of All Fears). But it becomes more of an issue as Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit rolls to its perfunctory car chase conclusion.
‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’: Basic plot ‘has never seemed so kinda ridiculous’
Shadow Recruit kicks off with young London School of Economics student Jack Ryan reacting with open-mouthed disbelief at the events of 9/11. His sense of patriotism aroused, he joins the Marines where he’s seriously injured in Afghanistan and nursed back to health at Walter Reed by comely doctor Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley, trying hard to maintain her American accent). Also watching Jack’s rehabilitation is CIA medium-shot William Harper (Kevin Costner, officially due for a career resurgence). To Harper, Jack’s unique combination of Marine training and economics education is perfect for a gig as a CIA mole working legit at a big Wall Street firm while secretly foraging for international financial chicanery.
The idea of an economy wonk who excels at close-quarters combat and can drive a van at high speeds through Lower Manhattan has never seemed so kinda ridiculous. More ridiculous is what happens after Jack decamps for Moscow, where he’s destined to face off against Russian oligarch Viktor Cheverin (Kenneth Branagh, twirling his mustache like a Cannon Films villain).
In a movie that should have been satisfied trafficking in contemporary issues like economic uncertainty and the renewal of Russia-U.S. hostilities, writers Adam Cozad and David Koepp felt it necessary to concoct a way to get Cathy, now Jack’s wife, involved in her husband’s mission. Suspicious that Jack is cheating on her, Cathy flies all the way to Moscow to surprise him in his hotel room.
Soon she’s front and center in, admittedly, the film most suspenseful sequence, where she must flirtatiously entertain Cheverin at a tony Moscow restaurant while Jack skulks around his office looking for key information. Otherwise, Cathy is a pretty thankless and unrealistic character, and Keira Knightley is too wispy to completely pull it off.
Latest ‘Jack Ryan’ reboot: ‘Moderate failure’
The moderate failure of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is one of ambition not execution. It meekly plays everything too close to the middle, afraid to take a chance. Jack Ryan joins the Marines as an expression of his patriotism, but he’s against water boarding. Branagh sells the thrills, but he’s giving us nothing we haven’t seen before. The story is complex, but also a bit silly. This iteration of Jack Ryan may be new, but the whole idea of Jack Ryan has never felt so old.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014). Director: Kenneth Branagh. Screenplay: Adam Cozad and David Koepp, based on characters created by Tom Clancy. Cast: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Lenn Kudrjawizki, Alec Utgoff, Peter Andersson, Elena Velikanova, Colm Feore, Nonso Anozie, Seth Ayott.
Chris Pine Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit photo: Paramount Pictures.