April 2024

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

CD10002_JackRyan_ShadowRecruit.jpgDIRECTOR: Kenneth Branagh

CAST: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh


Has any film character, apart from the continually recast James Bond, been rebooted as many times as Jack Ryan?  Originating in Tom Clancy’s Cold War international espionage novels and then played onscreen first by Alec Baldwin, then Harrison Ford, the CIA operative was rebooted as a fledgling new recruit—and transported into the present day—with 2002’s The Sum of All Fears, where he was played by Ben Affleck, and now he’s been rebooted all over again, with Shadow Recruit doing what Casino Royale did for James Bond and starting the character completely fresh with no connection to the previous films.  Clearly Kenneth Branagh and the studio is hoping for Shadow Recruit to be more successful at kickstarting a new Jack Ryan franchise than the previous attempt at a reboot, The Sum of All Fears, which spawned no sequels, but only time will tell.  Clancy fans might grumble about Ryan being removed from his Cold War origins, but taken on its own terms, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a smoothly diverting action thriller that represents a worthy fresh start for the long-running character.

In this timeline, Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is a young American studying abroad in England who returns home to enlist after witnessing the 9/11 attacks unfold on television.  Ryan’s career in the Marines ends when he’s injured in Afghanistan and recovers at Walter Reed Hospital with the help of a young doctor, Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), who later becomes his fiancée.  Earlier reports written by Ryan attract the attention of Admiral Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who recruits him into the CIA as an undercover agent on Wall Street investigating terrorist funding.  But Ryan gets out from behind the desk and into the action when he uncovers a Russian plot to crash the US economy.  Harper sends Ryan to Moscow, where his investigation attracts the attention of the plot’s mastermind, Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh).  Meanwhile back home, Ryan’s new secretive life and foreign missions threaten his relationship with Cathy, who suspects he’s having an affair.

For director Kenneth Branagh, typically associated with Shakespeare, this is a bit of a departure (although Branagh also branched out with the comic book superhero flick Thor), but he seems comfortable helming an action thriller.  There isn’t an overabundance of action, but we have a tussle between Ryan and an assassin in a hotel room, a car chase, and a climactic race against time, none of which are exceptional action sequences but all competently diverting, along with a tension-fueled sequence with Ryan breaking into Cherevin’s office.  The necessary exposition is rattled off quickly and efficiently enough to keep the pace from getting bogged down.  The movie doesn’t draw out the misunderstanding with Jack’s suspicious fiancée longer than necessary, and Cathy is refreshingly no-nonsense; she believes Jack when he admits the truth, accepts this development, and is soon joining the mission.

jack ryan2Chris Pine is an excellent fit for the rebooted young Ryan.  Pine is more comfortable in action hero mode than his predecessor as a young Ryan, Ben Affleck, and he avoids making Ryan a rehash of his young Captain Kirk in the Star Trek reboot.  Going from Kirk to Ryan doesn’t require a tremendous demonstration of range, but Ryan is more serious and less cocky, and Pine has moments where he brings an analytical, intellectual touch that recalls the way Alec Baldwin played the part in Ryan’s first onscreen adventure The Hunt for Red October (where Ryan arguably had more of a distinctive personality than in his later adventures when he turned into a standard-issue Harrison Ford action hero).  Keira Knightley is appealing as the future Mrs. Ryan, though she doesn’t sound quite right with an American accent.  Kevin Costner seems comfortably at home in the role of the elder mentor figure; Costner tended to be a dull leading man, but this kind of part seems to suit him well these days.  For his part in front of the camera, Kenneth Branagh restrains his own hammy tendencies and gives a subdued performance as a villain who is less of a scenery-chewing 007-style megalomaniac and more of a misguided patriot.

Shadow Recruit doesn’t do anything groundbreaking or particularly original.  In fact, while I like Pine in the role better than Ben Affleck, The Sum of All Fears was, on the whole, a more ambitious film.  Shadow Recruit sets fairly modest goals and achieves them.  There is the likable hero with an attractive girlfriend, the mentor figure, a foreign cultured villain, the requisite number of fights and car chases, and a climactic race against time.  But there’s nothing wrong with a serviceable action flick when it’s handled adeptly, and despite being a modern-day reboot, the screenwriters throw in enough of Ryan’s analytical side to keep him from becoming just another generic action hero, and despite no Cold War, we still have villainous Russians onhand.  It remains to be seen whether this fairly modest action offering will drum up enough enthusiasm  to kickstart more Jack Ryan adventures, but in any case, it’s an entertaining diversion.

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