“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” *** (out of 5)
Starring: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Adam Cozad & David Koepp, Tom Clancy (characters)
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
**CAUTION- POSSIBLE SPOILERS**
It used to be that ‘origin’ stories were reserved for those in spandex. Now, any fictional character can get the reboot treatment, whether it’s Alex Cross, James Bond, or the late Tom Clancy’s recurring hero Jack Ryan. With classically trained British legend Kenneth Branagh at the helm and cutting his villain chops, and charismatic everyman Chris Pine taking the role, we should expect, at bare minimum, an efficient machine of a film. That’s exactly what “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is: formulaic, safe, but still fun and well-made, resulting in a middling-to-good action/espionage film reboot.
Four solid to very good films featuring the character were made before this, not to mention the multiple Tom Clancy novels written from 1984 to the present featuring the Jack Ryan character. It has always been a film franchise in a state of flux, however, with the lead never committing long-term, Paramount never quite satisfied with the middling-to-positive box office returns, and an inconsistent story line. With this reboot, they have a chance to start from scratch, and there is a plethora of rich source material to pluck ideas from (I enjoy the meticulously detailed Tom Clancy novels). Of course, it stands to reason that they would choose to film from an entirely original screenplay instead of adapting one of the novels. In a way, it makes sense, considering the novels describe Ryan’s history over various stories, with nothing concrete in the way of an origin.
It also stands to reason that an espionage film set after 2001 would have to take into account the heightened tension level in the intelligence community. Ergo, the creative decision is made to have the 9/11 attack be the onus for Jack Ryan joining the military, where he excels in seeing patterns develop, and being a leader. While rehabbing after his chopper goes down in the Afghan mountains (definitely a nod to the novels), he meets spirited medical resident Cathy Muller (Knightley), who seems to give him the “right motivation” to heal. Also scoping out Ryan is Thomas Harper (Costner), who gives him the extra push to finish his doctorate and go to work for the CIA as an analyst. Harper is the classic mentor character, something Costner is becoming more familiar with as he ages.
Of course, being an ‘analyst’ is rather vague, and we know that Jack is basically going to become a field agent- not just because we’re familiar with the character, but the plot needs him to be more than that. A lot more. We’re quickly shifted in the film to ten years after his rehab, and Jack’s living with Cathy (now a practicing physician), well-entrenched in Wall Street working for a firm, and in the thick of things as a CIA analyst. I guess we’ll have to assume that Jack and Cathy had a magical courtship, as the film doesn’t bother. Jack has done what he does best- discover a pattern, and a disturbing one at that- there are multiple hidden accounts with large dollar amounts belonging to a Russian corporation headed by Viktor Cherevin (Branagh). We know this is dirty money, because Branagh is a name actor, and thus his intentions must be evil.
Boy, are they. Almost to the point of overkill, the Jack Ryan novels are excellent at ‘raising the stakes’ of danger for the reader. There’s always a regime somewhere about to be overthrown, or a sinister terrorist plot, or a “sleeper cell” in a far-away country that needs to be taken out. Not much different here, but I won’t get into specifics for the purpose of keeping something under wraps. The idea is that the CIA, or the U.S. government, is always putting out a fire, whether it has started or not. Jack Ryan is the guy who sees the spark in these stories, or leads the charge to put it out. In keeping with the spirit of the novels, the film does do a good job of giving us a character that we’re familiar with. Those new to the story will at least be able to gather that Ryan is an ultra-bright, resourceful, kind, and valuable boy scout of a character. He’s the reluctant spy.
In essence, that’s what this film does well- it sets us up for future Jack Ryan outings by giving us an incredibly likable character played by an incredibly likable actor. It’s debatable whether or not we should buy into Chris Pine as a borderline tactical genius, even if he’s also Captain Kirk (which I don’t necessarily buy, either). I do buy him as a charismatic good man, though, which sells more movie tickets. Branagh does all he can to breathe some evil nuance into the Cherevin character, whose motivations are typical (he even sneaks in a “Mother Russia” for good measure). The one who seems out-of-place here is Keira Knightley; she’s a fine actress that I’ve enjoyed in many different roles, but something about her version of Cathy Muller (Ryan?) isn’t right. She’s just so lithe. Perhaps comparing her to Anne Archer’s take on the character isn’t the best idea, but I sensed someone like Rachel McAdams belonged in the role instead.
I sense there will always be a crowd for films like this- the international espionage thriller. I for one am a sucker for them (and an unabashed fan of the Ryan character), and even done half-heartedly (I’m looking at you, “The Bourne Legacy”) I’ll be inclined to enjoy them. When the stakes are higher, it lends a gravity to a film, and all of the Jack Ryan stories have that specific weight to them. “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is not special by any means, and compared to the best in the franchise, “The Hunt For Red October”, it pales in comparison. You’ll have to suspend some disbelief to enjoy this film (how would the world NOT notice if Russia bought up all the U.S. currency and then dumped it right after a terrorist attack?). However, as an origin story/reboot/franchise starter, it’s effective enough in its’ mechanical nature to make me recommend it, based on the relative sharpness of the script, the decent action sequences, and in what it does best- exist as an international espionage film. People are constantly looking over their shoulders in this film, which is right at home in the genre, and a solid set up for the future.