Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
dir. Kenneth Branagh
Release Date: Jan 17, 14
Jack Ryan was never going to be the James Bond of the tech-espionage era that many (particularly the good people at Paramount Pictures) probably hoped he would one day become. And accordingly, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is hardly the franchise kick-starter that many are hoping it’ll be. Viewed as the franchise’s Casino Royale, a chance to bring the Ryan mythos to a new generation after disappearing for nearly 13 years since The Sum of All Fears, Shadow Recruit is instead a dull exercise in moderately stylish, profoundly intricate spy-against-spy intrigue that never coalesces into anything more than an escalating series of red herrings that attempt to mask what’s ultimately a pretty banal affair.
The film also comes in the wake of last year’s passing of acclaimed novelist Tom Clancy, who created the Ryan character and who’s had far better films (and hell, video games) developed from his work. Clancy has always been a difficult writer to translate to the screen, because the people who’re willing to read a Tom Clancy novel know exactly what they’re getting: endless double talk, speeches given in a vernacular you might not be able to pick up if you haven’t read other Clancy novels, instances of the human element that are hardly as convincing as all the tradecraft with which the novels are typically preoccupied. This isn’t a value judgment against Clancy, really, so much as an acknowledgment that his style works a lot better at 1,000+ pages than it does in 100 minutes of screen time.
In the case of Shadow Recruit, the film doesn’t even get the full use of its 100 minutes to spin its semi-detailed web. First, since this is a franchise reboot, we have to get to know the new Jack Ryan, played by Chris Pine with a distressing lack of his usual charm. If one were to take most post-9/11 action films, you could play first act bingo while watching Shadow Recruit. Ryan never smiles, but sometimes cracks a joke. He was a rapidly promoted Marine, who gave up his doctorate in economics to serve his country. After a helicopter crash in the Afghani mountains, Ryan was lucky enough to retain use of his limbs, but only with years of physical therapy and struggle. Along the way he fell in love with Cathy (Keira Knightley, whose American accent comes in fits and starts), and was recruited as a CIA analyst by a shadowy, self-effacing captain (Kevin Costner) who’s tied up in a potential attack on American soil involving a sinister Russian holdings company.
As directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also does some quality scenery gnawing as the film’s dastardly villain, Shadow Recruit never quite meets any of its operative goals. It lacks the distinctly artful power of the Bourne movies, and Pine isn’t given enough material to become the Daniel Craig the film clearly wants and needs. For all the film’s talk of a deadly terrorist attack, it’s still centered around trying to manipulate market values of the American dollar. There’s value in trying to make a smarter kind of action movie, but the previous Ryan films worked so well because they were a brainy alternative to the deafening Stallone action epics of the time. Now, in a time where action cinema has elevated its mental game, Jack Ryan feels like the dweeby younger cousin to the heroes he had a hand in building.