The oddest thing about Jack Ryan, the CIA analyst/Cold War hero created by the late novelist Tom Clancy, is how he keeps getting younger with almost every movie he appears in. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, which serves as an origin story of sorts, finds him portrayed by Chris Pine, after previous turns by older actors Ben Affleck and Harrison Ford (he did start out younger, in the person of Alec Baldwin, in The Hunt for Red October before Ford took on the role). Pine is adequate enough in the role, but the tiresome studio fallback of showing us how he became the agent he is results in a bland espionage melodrama that lacks any real tension or depth.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit takes Ryan’s back history from the books and alters it to speed up his journey to the CIA, updating him into an economics student studying in London who immediately heads home to enlist after the September 11th attacks. Once in Afghanistan, he is badly injured in a helicopter crash and sent Stateside again, where his heroic actions and some unfinished school homework (or something like that) catch the eye of the film’s obligatory Wise Mentor (Kevin Costner).
Costner’s character, Harper, quickly recruits Ryan into the CIA and places him covertly in a major Wall Street firm to watch…lines on a computer (I’m guessing that since he’s covert, this is what the second half of the movie title means – it’s never really made clear). Ryan soon discovers some funny business going on in Russia – a nod, I suppose, to Clancy’s Cold War scenarios – and determines that a sinister plot is afoot to crash the U.S. economy and launch a terrorist attack at the same time. Nothing left to chance here, folks.
By the way, I’m not really ruining anything for you because this information is spelled out pretty much in the first half hour of the picture, which goes a long way toward draining it of any suspense it may have had. We also meet the bad guy, a powerful Russian businessman named Viktor Cherevin, played in thankfully understated fashion by Kenneth Branagh (who also directed). We say thankfully because we know Branagh’s work and he could have made this guy into Blofeld on steroids if he chose, but luckily decides to ease back on the throttle.
The rest of the movie follows all the standard spy paces, as Ryan heads to Moscow, survives one assassination attempt (the motivation for which is also rather murky) and finds himself on the fast track to a confrontation with Cherevin. Events are complicated by Ryan’s girlfriend and eventual wife Cathy (Keira Knightley), reimagined here as a thankless character who’s just in the movie so she can nag her boyfriend, contrive to get herself to Moscow and put herself in the path of danger, as if our poor young hero didn’t have enough on his plate.
But that’s the thing: for someone who has barely been in the field, who still suffers from his war injury and who has been behind a desk on Wall Street for 10 years, Ryan is also a full-on action hero. He kills the hell out of his first would-be assassin, stages an expert break-in at Cherevin’s offices (the one sequence that delivers some suspense) and gets behind the wheel of an SUV to professionally speed through the traffic-clogged streets of Moscow on a high-speed chase to rescue Cathy from Cherevin’s clutches. The script wants to give us both a young, still-forming Ryan and an experienced, unflappable one at the same time.
Branagh, along with screenwriters David Koepp and Adam Cozad, never makes us feel how dangerous the stakes are – even that high speed chase ends up being pretty pointless and doesn’t do anything to move the plot forward. That seems to be the case with most of the action sequences, and it doesn’t help that Branagh directs them all like Paul Greengrass on a bad day, with choppy cuts, extreme close-ups and incoherent geography. There is absolutely nothing here we have not seen before, done better and with a lot more gravity.
And that’s the biggest problem with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit: the terrorist plot, the economic machinations, the big business villain, the geopolitical intrigue and the hero/mentor dynamic all feel lifted out of previous films, including a couple of the earlier Ryan adventures. Aside from some details of Ryan’s early history, the film departs completely from Clancy’s novels, which get pretty wild and end up with Ryan becoming president and going to war with China. This is the second time that Paramount Pictures has tried rebooting Ryan after 2002’s The Sum of All Fears, but it’s clear that this latest attempt has made the character into literally a shadow of himself.