When we first meet Jack Ryan (Chris Pine), he’s a college student who joins the marines after experiencing 9/11. Following a tour of duty in Afghanistan that leaves him hospitalized from a war injury, Jack falls for his rehabilitation doctor, med-student Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley). After being fully rehabilitated, he’s approached by Tom Harper (Kevin Costner), a member of the CIA who wants to bring him in as an analyst.
When Ryan stumbles upon information that leads him to believe Russian financier Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) is plotting to collapse the U.S. economy, Harper upgrades Ryan from analyst to operative, and his fight to save America begins once again.
There’s no doubt that Jack Ryan was the late, critically acclaimed author Tom Clancy’s (who passed away only a couple months ago) James Bond. Some of you might be wondering what an iconic literary and film character would be doing in the dumping grounds of January. Originally penciled in for the December holiday blockbuster season, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was being released by Paramount, which was also releasing The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese’s flick was scheduled for November, but since the filmmakers ran into some editing issues with the studio, The Wolf of Wall Street got bumped back to December, thereby bumping Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit back from Christmas 2013 to the following January 2014.
Sorry, Jack Ryan. You’re certainly loved, but this is Scorsese you’re going up against.
While not a direct film adaptation of a Tom Clancy novel like The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears were, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit takes Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan and sets him up in his own sort of origin story. While it is a straightforward, formulaic, by the books spy-thriller, the results are often entertaining.
Director/co-star Kenneth Branagh, who, for most of his filmmaking career, has been known more for his Shakespearean film adaptations (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet and As You Like It), seems to have, rather effectively, transitioned himself into an action director. In 2011, he directed Thor, blending the entertaining “fish out of water” humor with the Shakespearean style vision he creates so well. Unlike, Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a more restrained approach from Branagh, although that’s not to say Jack Ryan doesn’t find himself having to kick someone’s ass every now and then.
The weakness in this film isn’t Branagh’s direction, which is precise and well-paced, it’s the writing by Adam Cozad and David Koepp. While I can appreciate the smaller approach they decide to take with this story and the economic terrorism angle is a nice touch, there’s not as much substance here as we’ve seen before in prior Jack Ryan films. We really get only two primary action set pieces that are certainly thrilling at times, but they also have you wondering if the central villain is really that dense, particularly during the middle act where Ryan’s fiancee is called upon to flirt with Cherevin. Yeah, it’s fun, but it’s also ridiculous. He apparently has the brains to take down an entire country’s economy, but can’t tell when he’s being duped by a CIA agent’s wife. Plus, the writers break one of the biggest cliches in film: the villain that talks about killing the kidnapped wife instead of just doing it.
Seriously, what’s with villains and their speeches? It’s like they get off more by talking about it than actually going for it. Keep that in mind, all future film protagonists. Your wives and children aren’t actually in danger.
Chris Pine has already sold me on whether he’s up to the task of handling an iconic franchise role, having already done a terrific job as Capt. Kirk in the two most recent Star Trek films. While his performance here doesn’t sit up there with what he brought to Kirk, I still thought he was effective. Is it enough to carry another franchise? Maybe. I’d like to see what he can do with a better script if they plan on a second film, though.
25 years ago, Kevin Costner, after doing films like The Untouchables and No Way Out, could’ve played Jack Ryan himself and actually turned down a role once to focus on Dances With Wolves. He’s great here as Ryan’s mentor, a role that fits his “matter-of-fact” style of delivery quite well.
Keira Knightly does a decent job as Jack Ryan’s clueless wife, who once again has no idea what her man’s up to and thinks he’s probably cheating on her (Really, women? You always have to jump to that conclusion). It’s a nice performance from her, but it had me thinking she should’ve just stuck with her British accent rather than go for the odd American one she gives here. It’s not Jodie Foster Elysium odd, but it was still noticeable.
Kenneth Branagh gets to sink his teeth into the villain role here. It’s a fairly cliche baddie, you know, the cultured type with the art paintings and classical music that has no problem kicking the crap out of an assistant that doesn’t do a job right for him. Branagh hams it up and lays the accent on thick, but you can tell he’s having fun at least, and it could always be worse. This could’ve been John Travolta taking a stab at another Eastern European/Russian accent like he did in last year’s Killing Season.
For that, I’m eternally grateful to Branagh.
All in all, this isn’t breaking any ground in the spy-thriller genre. The writing could’ve been better, but the cast and Branagh’s edge of your seat direction, more often than not, elevate the sometimes simplistic, by the books material. It doesn’t scream “Rush out and see me now!”, but I’ve already seen much, much, much worse this month and for what it was, I had a fun time.
I give Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit a B- (★★★).