Alec Baldwin. Harrison Ford. Ben Affleck. Playing Jack Ryan is almost as dangerous of a job as being Jack Ryan, and now 24 years after Tom Clancy’s most famous character first hit the screen in The Hunt for Red October he’s back with a new face and a new reboot. This is not a good thing.
Ryan (Chris Pine) is a college student when the Twin Towers fall in New York City, and the event leads him to join the U.S. Marines. An early mission in Afghanistan leaves him incapacitated and struggling to regain his physical faculties, but a mysterious C.I.A. agent named Harper (Kevin Costner) recruits him to help follow the money on Wall Street being used to line terrorist pockets. Ryan’s nose for numbers and patterns identifies a possible discrepancy with a Russian company headed up by Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), and then all hell breaks loose.
Unlike those earlier films, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is not based on an existing Clancy novel. The “original” story uses elements of the Ryan we already know but adds in additional elements to increase his heroism and speed up his journey into the C.I.A. These elements work well enough, but as the story and action unfold it quickly becomes clear that those novels featured something else sorely lacking here. Brains.
“It’s right out of Napoleon’s playbook.”
The extended prologue sets an intriguing stage as Ryan steps up for his country only to face a setback that labels him a hero while leaving him a cripple. His recovery, aided in part by a med student named Cathy (Keira Knightley), brings him to the attention of Harper and the secrecy-filled gig as a spook.
So far so good, but once Adam Cozad and David Koepp’s script moves the action to Moscow two things happen. The first is beneficial to viewers in the arrival on scene of Branagh’s enjoyably portrayed villain. The second is detrimental as the gang is forced to play spy games complete with Mission: Impossible-like “keycard” shenanigans. They’re a bit silly and made that much more so by the manufactured involvement of Cathy in the unfolding plot.
By the time the third act hits Ryan has turned into a full-on savant spewing out clues and solving dilemmas in record time. Conclusions are reached seemingly out of thin air, and we’re asked to suddenly buy a major threat even as we’re finding it difficult to care.
Pine makes a fine enough Ryan, but the character’s hallmark is in being thrust into situations beyond his intentions. Baldwin’s portrayal remains the best for this reason, and while Pine has one scene play on that element too frequently he’s James Bond. Knightley is Knightley, and your appreciation of her will rest on your appreciation of her peculiar jaw structure and your willingness to accept the character’s heavily constructed mistrust of Ryan. That said, there’s no reason why she couldn’t have kept her British accent.
Branagh’s Russian villain is probably exactly what you’d expect from the man, and while it’s not exactly understated he keeps the shtick to a bare minimum. Costner though is the standout here in his role as the older, wiser, and very grizzled superior who’s not above descending into the fray when necessary. If nothing else it’s fun to imagine his early appearance in full Navy outfit is the return of No Way Out’s Tom Farrell.
While the script does no one any favors the film suffers in the action department too. Bigger set-pieces offer some thrills, but the handful of fight scenes are a blur of tightly cropped closeups and choppy edits. They lose all effectiveness as we struggle to decode them and see what’s actually happening. Less distressing but more ludicrous are the graphical representations of various security systems. It’s just so much goofiness meant to keep our eyes entertained while computers are being manipulated.
There was great promise here, even for a reboot, but while the performances are mostly game and Branagh’s direction is solid outside of the action the script simply drags everyone and everything down around it. It progressively becomes more and more difficult to give a damn about this recruit and the shadows he’s playing within.
The Upside: The cast in general; Kevin Costner in particular; prologue does interesting setup work recreating the character
The Downside: Script is entirely too silly and too frequently dumb; third act is an embarrassment; fight scenes are indecipherable
On the Side: Kenneth Branagh’s next film as director is a live-action adaptation of Cinderella.