Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
PLOT: The origin story of Jack Ryan, who is forced to go from CIA financial analyst to spy when a Russian banker plans a terrorist strike on New York.
REVIEW: All those who lament the continuing trend of reboots being "dark and gritty" will certainly find the quaint old-fashionedness of JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT refreshing. Though it brings the Tom Clancy character into the modern age, the Kenneth Branagh film is a workmanlike effort that, at least in terms of texture and spirit, feels very much like the Harrison Ford Jack Ryan movies of the 90s, when Cold War paranoia was still heavy in our minds. This is the kind of movie that puts a title card saying "New York" on the screen while showing a shot of New York. It's not too flashy, it's not overwhelmed with gadgets or technical jargon or death-defying stunts; it more or less is a standard issue espionage thriller.
But this quality also holds JACK RYAN back; because the script isn't quite clean or clever enough to elevate it to a place that makes it feel like it's revitalizing the genre, it often feel a bit rusty. It's like slapping a new coat of paint on an old van.
SHADOW RECRUIT's first act basically fast-forwards through more than a decade of the life of Ryan, played by sturdy Chris Pine: he witnesses the events of 9/11 from London and joins the military; he's injured in a helicopter crash and meets the love of his life (Keira Knightley) in a hospital; he's recruited by a veteran CIA operative (Kevin Costner) to work undercover for the agency as a financial analyst on Wall Street (where in reality he'll be looking for money going toward terrorist groups). Years later, he's shacked up with Knightley - who still doesn't know what he actually does - he's enlisted by Costner to travel to Russia in order to investigate the schemings of a banker (Branagh) whom the agency believes is involved with some shady activity.
And they're quite right about that. Branagh's Viktor Cherevin is a Bond-esque villain looking to topple the U.S. economy while simultaneously initiating an attack on New York, the ultimate goal being America's plunge into a second Great Depression. His motives are sketchily laid out (he's still nursing wounds - physical and mental - from the Soviet war in Afghanistan), but all we need to know is that he's the drawling, cold-hearted counterpart to our fresh-faced Boy Scout Jack Ryan and he wants to "make America bleed". That's actual dialogue, and I can only assume this is the 300th movie to feature that very line.
The Jack Ryan series (this is the fifth) has always dealt in escapist entertainment for while remaining fairly grounded. They have earnestness in spades, and maintain a healthy amount of tension by making the stakes appear decidedly high; it's always a global catastrophe in the offing, and more often than not the U.S. has the biggest bullseye on its head. But JACK RYAN dispatches credibility early on and often asks too much from its audience. We must first of all suspend all disbelief when it comes to Jack and his significant other; their relationship is so forced and lacking in chemistry that we're left to contemplate why she even wants to stick with him after she wonders if he's cheating on her. (No, he's just been lying to you for ten years about what he does for a living.) The movie then forces Knightley to become an active member of the espionage plot; as if the CIA would trust the fate of the country in the hands of a woman who just learned ten minutes ago that her husband has an occupation which requires him to kill people if necessary. Similarly, we're supposed to believe she handles like a pro a life and death situation which necessitates she lie to a potential mass murderer's face, even while her world would likely be shattering around her. Eye-rolling plot machinations like this kill a movie that needs your cooperation to be taken along for the ride.
The action/suspense sequences fare no better in the plausibility department, nor are they particularly exciting. Jack Ryan, you see, is the smartest guy in the room, always apparently two steps ahead of everyone else. Is there anything he can't do? Not really. Chris Pine brings humanity to the character because he's a likable screen presence, but as he's written, Jack is like Sherlock Holmes and Ethan Hunt rolled into one. There isn't much tension if we think the hero can't be bested. Wait until you see the utterly ridiculous sequence aboard an airplane wherein Ryan connects the dots of Viktor's conspiracy so fast his effort should be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. There's barely any learning curve for Ryan; even in the early going, when he's set upon by a man who is presumably a master assassin, he gets the upper hand without too much worry.
Branagh also falls back onto the now-standard jittery camera and indecipherable editing during the more intense action scenes, which I suppose is where JACK RYAN most resembles more modern action cinema. A chase through downtown Manhattan is almost impossible to make heads or tails out of, as is the aforementioned fight with a killer in a hotel bathroom. Is it too much trouble to just pull the camera back a bit and hold on a shot for more than two seconds?
Pine is a good, if not really outstanding, Ryan. He doesn't have the cocky swagger of his James Kirk in the rebooted STAR TREK franchise, but he's a confident and capable actor with an effortless "everyman" appeal that suits the character. Branagh, sporting a very theatrical Russian accent (would you expect any less) is a fine adversary while the movie's going on, but there's nothing about him that will stick with you when it's over. Knightley is lovely to look at and plays the role with charm and grace, although almost every scene with her borders on the farfetched. (Not her fault, of course.) And it's certainly nice seeing Kevin Costner take on the mentor figure here; his William Harper is a calculating, sometimes cold customer, bringing a cynicism to the proceedings that is welcome. In the next JACK RYAN - for there will surely be another - it would behoove the filmmakers to utilize as much Costner as they can.