‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ Review
Some franchises leave an indelible mark on you during your formative years, and inspire passionate, lifelong devotion from their fans – but is Jack Ryan really one of them? Given the messy lineage of the character on screen, played now by four separate actors (Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and here, by 'Star Trek Into Darkness' star Chris Pine), not to mention the fact that the films are wildly uneven in terms of quality, it seems like the answer would be no. But, the character’s resilience is apparently as indefatigable as Hollywood’s faith in intellectual property, which is why ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ exists, a dull mishmash of Cold War spy games and ‘Bourne Identity’-style grit which shares much in common with the weakest of its predecessors – especially total forgettability.
Pine plays Ryan, a prodigiously talented economics student who defers a lucrative private sector job to join the Marines. Injured in a helicopter crash, Ryan struggles through rehabilitation with the help of a young doctor, Cathy (Keira Knightley), and the encouragement of a senior member of the CIA, Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) who sees promise in him.
Recruited to be a mole for the CIA, Ryan takes a job on Wall Street, where he monitors monetary transactions that may be used to pay for terrorist operations. But, after uncovering encrypted files that link a mysterious Russian businessman named Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) with a conspiracy to scuttle the U.S. economy, Ryan is thrown into action to uncover Cherevin’s plan – and stop him, if possible, before it’s too late.
In case you missed it, the bad guys in ‘Jack Ryan’ are Russian, a choice which suggests both cheap nostalgia (for the Cold War) and laziness (by screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp). While there’s something unquestionably cool about Cold War-era subterfuge, the movie uses it as window dressing for what is otherwise thoroughly modern tradecraft, epitomized by wringing suspense from the download speeds of Ryan’s laptop, but also staging that borrows more from Paul Greengrass than, well, Tom Clancy. The problem is that as a director, Branagh is no Paul Greengrass, so his use of handheld camera is less aggressive than jumbled, and the resulting action less visceral than disorienting.
A perhaps more important question to ask is “who is Jack Ryan?” Because if he was the guy played by Alec Baldwin in 'Hunt For Red October' or Harrison Ford in 'Patriot Games' and 'A Clear and Present Danger,' the guy Pine is playing isn’t him. Admittedly, my memory of the earlier films is dim, but the Ryan of those movies seemed like a thinker first, and only occasionally a fighter; here, Ryan’s time in the military is important not because it makes him well-rounded, or even a patriot, but because when he gets into a fight with the guy who’s supposed to be his security detail, he can kick ass like he’s been doing it his whole life.
In reducing his critical-thinking skills to a footnote – or maybe more accurately, a plot device when the story needs to move forward – the filmmakers have successfully updated, and dumbed down, a once-truly interesting character. And, the fact that none of the set pieces are unique or suspenseful feels like a testament to the fact that Branagh and co. made the wrong choices in conceiving him anew.
Meanwhile, poor Keira Knightley has nothing to do in the film except wait to be won over by Ryan’s charms – a development that seems inevitable if it weren’t for the fact that Ryan possesses so little of it. Although she plays an interesting role in one key sequence in the film – distracting a mark while Ryan plunders his hard drive – her inclusion feels more studio-mandated than story-driven, particularly since Harper’s insistence she play a role would, professionally speaking, be one of the most irresponsible decisions of his soon-to-be-former career in the CIA.
Between this film and 'Man of Steel,' Costner’s finding a comfortable groove to mount a career comeback – neither film rests on his shoulders, but he gets credit for being good in them – and, as in that film, here the star transitions smoothly from hero to hero's mentor. But, even his contributions, good as they are, are a distraction from the anemic, unimaginative stakes of the plot, whose potential "don’t ruin our economy" bummer has to be amplified by the obvious heartstring-tugging of a bomb possibly going off in the financial district of New York City.
While it may be unimportant to most moviegoers, it’s worth mentioning that this script was originally not based on, about or focused on Jack Ryan, and Paramount grafted Clancy’s hero onto its machinery much like Fox did multiple times for the 'Die Hard' franchise. Oddly, though, the filmmakers don’t seem to know, or care, what made Jack Ryan iconic, or at least apply those qualities in distinctive enough measures. And ironically, the movie might feel more passable – less burdened by a sense of legacy – if the main character weren’t Jack Ryan. But either way, ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ just barely works, because as is the character is too far away from the interpretations that helped define him to audiences, but not close enough to something unique to distinguish him for a new generation.
'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit' is in theaters now.
Todd Gilchrist is a film critic and entertainment journalist with more than ten years of experience working in Los Angeles. A member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd has contributed to a wide variety of print and online outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Boxoffice Magazine, Movies.com, Variety, The Playlist, MTV Movies blog, and IGN.com.