10 Big Questions Left Unanswered By ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’

By  · Published on January 18th, 2014

The thing that separates Jack Ryan movies from the James Bonds and the Mission: Impossibles and the Bournes, etc., is that Ryan is an analyst for the CIA. That means they should be smarter than your average spy thriller. Sometimes they’re at least as smart. However, the latest, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, is one of the dumbest, more cliched entries of the genre. It’s an embarrassment of plotting and exposition, with so many instances of presumed circumstances that fortuitously turn out to happen that it may as well be called “Jack Ryan: Lucky Duck.” To put it in modern context, it’s like a bad episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. yet has a lot less interest in characters and the logical choices they’d make.

Questions I had leftover at the end of Shadow Recruit may be explained in Tom Clancy’s Ryan novels, but that shouldn’t matter. This isn’t even an adaptation so much as an “original” story inspired by those books and featuring a character with the same name. I wouldn’t be surprised if fans of Clancy find it no more a true Ryan installment than Die Hard fans found A Good Day to Die Hard recognizable as a movie fitting into that series. Feel free to give me clarification or suggestion of an answer to any of these, and remember that, though it should be obvious, this post is full of SPOILERS if you haven’t yet seen the movie.

1. Why Doesn’t Ryan’s Bad Back Factor Into the Action Later?

I’m aware that Ryan’s (Chris Pine) helicopter crash and broken back are Ryan novel canon, and with this being a new origin story reboot it makes sense to include that point. But to what end? This is still an enclosed narrative and everything on screen should be important. We don’t just hear that he broke his back, we watch his recovery and there’s even a scene of him running after the ten-year shift forward in time, in which he’s wearing a brace. So why not add that weakness to his obstacles when he finds himself suddenly on a mission where he’s running, jumping and fighting? I kept wanting Bane to show up and break his back again just so the thing could come back into play. Plus the evil plot in this movie seems like something that very villain would have done in The Dark Knight Rises.

2. If Harper’s Team is “The One That Makes Sure [9/11] Doesn’t Happen Again,” What is the Rest of the CIA Doing?

I don’t mean all of the rest of the CIA, maybe just those responsible for waterboarding and other forms of torture that Ryan states disapproval of. Harper (Kevin Costner) defends his part of the Agency when Ryan brings up the negative reputation, claiming that’s not his area and that his team is the one that makes sure terrorist plots are thwarted. Just him and his couple of underlings? I don’t think so. Never mind all the thousands of CIA agents working to get information on terrorism around the world, though. The torture that’s brought about so much controversy isn’t just for fun. Or strictly for finding out what happened on 9/11. It also typically relates to finding information and stopping terrorists before they strike again. Was Harper just making up an appealing statement to win Ryan’s interest? Probably.

3. How Was It Not Obvious to Cathy that Jack was in the CIA?

Cathy (Keira Knightley) met Jack at Walter Reed, he was a war hero, he must have gone through some sort of training during a time when she knew him and now he’s going on a sudden, shady trip to Moscow? Clearly he’s a spy. Okay, maybe not clearly, but getting that idea wouldn’t be any crazier than thinking he was a cheater. First of all, girl, your first accusation in 10 years of knowing him is because of a single Film Forum movie ticket? Nobody has affairs at the movies (especially not in the uncomfortable seats of that arthouse theater, which is typically too crowded anyway). They go to hotels. There wasn’t even two stubs. Obviously he just took a break in the day to go watch some Barbara Stanwyck. Relax. Instead you surprise your boyfriend in Moscow, a trip that apparently was difficult to manage, because you think he’s, what, taken another girlfriend to Russia for some romance in Red Square? Or he’s doing local hookers? That sure would have been an expensive and awkward way to catch him in the act. This is a guy who seems pretty nice, who has apparently been trying to get you to marry him for years, and you’re wondering what’s wrong with him? But Ryan isn’t off the hook here, either. Why didn’t he just give his cover of taking a break when she brought up the idea of going to see the exact same relatively obscure revival film out of nowhere? Obviously she saw the stub and is testing you, dude. Nobody brings up Sorry, Wrong Number as if it’s some popular title everybody knows and is dying to see.

4. Why Would the CIA Trust Cathy So Quickly, So Easily and So Much?

So Cathy has flown all the way to Moscow, that suspicious nut. She nearly couldn’t get a VISA, but she did, which I would think would trigger some kind of alarm with the CIA while her husband is involved in some major mission of theirs. Even if they missed her getting onto the plane, maybe they could have picked her up at the airport for safety’s sake. Instead they let Jack tell her everything he’s been keeping a secret because they’re not married. Then, they explain the whole mission. Then, they bring her into the operation in spite of her having no training and no clearance and no certainty of not cracking. She’s not even just a prop. She’s a distraction, one that has to be able to fake a fight and do some very convincing acting. Who in the audience or CIA doesn’t see it coming that Cathy will be a hostage at some point?


5. For That Matter, Why Would the CIA Trust Jack So Much With Such a Major Mission?

Jack Ryan is an analyst. He’s doing great work, presumably, undercover at a major financial firm (does he get paid by them and the government?), and understandably the CIA wants him to go to Moscow to meet the man who might be funding terrorists in order to do a totally normal audit. Beyond that, there is no reason for him to be trusted with the responsibility he’s ultimately given. Why is Ryan the only person who could sneak into the office of Viktor the villain (Kenneth Branagh) and copy his files? What about those other spies on Harper’s team? Is there no other man in operations they can call in to handle such a risky task if they’ve never used a computer? Especially when having Ryan do it requires him to make some weird scene in front of his wife and Viktor after which he’s like, “I’m just going out for a long walk to cool off instead of keeping to our business dinner that is important to my firm back in the U.S.” This is a guy who just the night before had a traumatic experience with his first kill and doesn’t seem ready for real action yet. And was there no memory on the part of Harper and Cathy that Ryan is still rehabilitating from that broken back and might not be the best at running and jumping and fighting… [go back to question one].

6. Why Did Viktor Try to Kill Ryan at the Hotel?

When Ryan gets off the plane in Moscow, he immediately trusts the first man who says he’s his driver/protection and gets into that guy’s car. Fortunately he does make it safely to his hotel, but then once there the driver/bodyguard attempts to shoot him in the room. Why didn’t the guy just drive him right to some warehouse and do the job there? Firstly it doesn’t seem necessary to kill an analyst coming all that way to check your books ‐ especially when it turns out you can just sell the assets and leave him with nothing to audit. He’s just some numbers nerd, as far as you know. Instead you want to have a hit on him in a way that doesn’t look at all like an accident, making you potentially appear suspicious as a result. If Ryan just went missing it could be any number of things gone wrong for a foreigner in a dangerous city, but if he’s cleanly assassinated, what kind of motive would there be for that except that he was being too nosy into a wealthy businessman’s affairs? And where did that evil vacuuming lady go? She was clearly in on the hit, but I guess only for noise diversion even though her partner in the room had a silencer anyway. Or wait, was she not in on it and that’s why she didn’t run in to help? Was she really just a cleaning lady who was acting weird and for a moment thought she heard a ruckus in the room? Was she CIA and there as eyes on Ryan? Very bad eyes, obviously? She’s now to be known as one of the most confusing extras ever seen in a film.


7. Is It Customary For Our Spies to Steal Dogs?

Next time you see a flyer on a lamppost about a missing dog, chances are it was the CIA just stealing the pet as part of their cover. That just seems mean. Harper doesn’t even bring the poor mutt home when he’s done. Also, I’m sure he and Ryan looked so much less suspicious because of that dog. I’d be more worried that someone spotted the dognapping.

8. Why Did Viktor Fake His Son’s Death And Set Him Up As a Sleeper Agent So Long Ago?

Did anyone understand the details of this long-in-the-works scheme involving Viktor’s own son being raised in America so that one day he could be a suicide bomber on Wall Street? When and why did Viktor originate this plan, and why his son? Was attacking the U.S. economy really an idea for more than a decade? Couldn’t the young man have painted the van any earlier during that decade so it wouldn’t run the morning of the attack and be spotted as a fake? It seems like a lot of planning and ultimately some detrimental procrastination went into something that seems to have been in simple retaliation for an expected UN decision that the guy wasn’t happy with ‐ even if he has also wanted revenge because of U.S. intervention during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or something (this part I saw in the Wikipedia synopsis but don’t even recall it being mentioned in the movie).

9. Could One Russian Businessman Really Crush the U.S. Economy By Pulling All His Investments?

This seems pretty far fetched, but I don’t know. I don’t have a Ph.D. in economics like Jack Ryan. I’d love to hear from anyone out there who can explain the plausibility, because that sounds like something that shouldn’t be able to happen, a single foreign billionaire making the world economy vulnerable to what he does with his money.

10. Why Is the Film’s Tagline “Trust No One”?

There is one person who it turns out Ryan shouldn’t have trusted, the driver/bodyguard. Who else? Cathy doesn’t turn out to be working for the Russians, unfortunately, neither does Harper, who at one point convinces Ryan to trust him just because he has to trust someone. Such a tagline implies there’s going to be some deception at some point, but the film doesn’t deliver on that. If anything, the movie shows that we should trust people. We should trust an untrained analyst with the work of an operations agent. We should trust his girlfriend because she’s his girlfriend (and she indeed does everything right, and it’s the real CIA guys who mess up and let her get taken). Etc. Maybe the poster is trying to tell people not to trust the critics who give it a bad review. I say it should be the opposite, telling you not to trust the few who have given it a positive one.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.