It’s more than a decade since Tom Clancy’s CIA hero Jack Ryan last appeared on the big screen, and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit serves as a reboot of sorts, introducing Chris Pine as a fresh-faced replacement for his predecessors, Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck.
We follow Pine’s Jack Ryan on his path from an economics student in London, via his tour of duty in Afghanistan as a Marine, and his subsequent injury at the hands of an insurgent attack on his airborne helicopter. It’s while he’s undergoing physiotherapy for a resulting spinal injury that he meets the two people who’ll affect the next few years of his life: Keira Knightley’s Doctor Cathy Muller, who becomes his fiancée, and Kevin Costner’s Commander Thomas Harper.
As if Harper’s imposing presence and dour demeanour wasn’t enough to at least hint that he works for the government, he quickly makes his position by whispering, “I’m in the CIA” loudly enough for audience members asleep on the back row can hear him. It’s Harper who coaxes Ryan into joining the agency (“If you still want to serve your country, there’s a way”, he tells the former soldier), where he becomes a financial analyst working undercover at a Wall Street trading firm.
What follows is a kind of action accountancy thriller, with Ryan stumbling across a Russian plot to carry out a form of economic terrorism on US soil; a company called the Cherevin Group has been hiding vital accounts, which Ryan quickly concludes is part of a coordinated attempt to bring the value of the dollar tumbling through the floor. At the behest of the CIA, Ryan is duly dispatched to the company’s Moscow HQ, where the big bad boss Cherevin (played by a glowering Kenneth Branagh, who also directs) awaits with several heavily-armed goons in tow.
For at least the first hour, Shadow Recruit moves briskly through its espionage plot, introducing Pine as a capable yet human lead who’s not yet at ease with his shift from desk job to active undercover duty. Ryan’s first encounter with a dangerous assassin is viscerally handled, and if anything, the quiet aftermath is even better; Pine’s portrayal of his character’s shock and fear is perfectly modulated, and it’s refreshing to see an action hero reflect on his actions rather than simply spit out a glib one-liner and move on.
Pine’s pairing with Costner, who plays the wise sage here, is similarly well conceived, and the moments where they simply sit on a bench and compare war stories are made compelling by their sparky, easy-going charisma.
Knightley, meanwhile, seems less at ease in a somewhat thankless suspicious love interest role; so convinced is she that Ryan’s seeing someone else behind her back that she flies to Moscow, breaks into Ryan’s hotel room and begins demanding questions of him. In fairness, Knightley acquits herself well in the scenes that come later, but her character isn’t exactly the most sympathetic in the film up to this point.
Branagh, meanwhile, makes for an entertaining if unspectacular villain. Like Knightley, he’s a victim of a script that tends to over explain when it could simply leave the audience to join the dots – an otherwise tense scene involving an energy-saving light bulb is undone to a certain degree by the distracting speech that goes on all around it.
Behind the camera, Branagh gives Shadow Recruit the slick pace and steely sheen of a good, high-tech thriller, and the film’s at its best when it’s at its least explosive; as it turns out, Chris Pine was born to sneak into buildings, or whisper about economic terrorism in the backs of vans. It’s towards the end that Shadow Recruit loses its way a little bit, becoming somewhat lost in a maze of generic chases and fight scenes.
The last act is an attempt, perhaps, at skewing the Jack Ryan franchise at a slightly younger audience, with Pine given more of a chance to regularly showcase his prodigious fighting, running and vehicle handling abilities than his predecessors. Shadow Recruit therefore pitches itself somewhere between the analytical intrigue of Tom Clancy’s novels and the gritty mayhem of the Bourne series.
As a result, the plot and set-pieces are slightly too formulaic to make Shadow Recruit a truly great thriller, but as an introduction to a new incarnation of Jack Ryan, it’s efficient and entertaining enough to make a new series of Pine-led Ryan films an enticing prospect.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is out on the 24th January in the UK.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.