Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) / Thriller-Action

MPAA rated : PG-13 for violence, and brief strong language
Running time: 105 min.

Cast: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh
Small role: Colm Feore, David Paymer

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay: Adam Cozad, David Koepp
Review published January 20, 2014

Tom Clancy's most popular character, Jack Ryan, gets dusted off the shelves one more time in this 2014 reboot of the series, with Chris Pine (Star Trek Into Darkness, This Means War) starring as the fourth on-screen representation of the espionage-tinged action hero.  This time Ryan, who first graced the silver screen by Alec Baldwin in 1990's The Hunt for Red October, is re-imagined as more of a combination of Ethan Hunt and Jason Bourne, though without the lavish action sequences of both film franchises, but still retaining the 'cold war' element by making the bad guys hardline Russians. 

The film opens with Jack Ryan as a college student in London in 2001, who saw the 9/11 attacks on television as a call to duty to put down his economics books and fight in Afghanistan as a Marine, where he is nearly killed in an attack on a helicopter.  His military career effectively over, Ryan spends the next phase of his life in Walter Reed Army Medical Center recuperating from his injuries with the help of a lovely med student named Cathy Muller (Knightley, Anna Karenina), after which he is approached a commander in the Navy named Thomas Harper (Costner, Man of Steel), who encourages him to pursue his education and become a top-flight analyst the CIA.

Fast-forward to today, and Ryan, now monitoring for strange activity from potential terrorists on Wall Street, discovers what appears to be a burgeoning attempt by a powerful Russian firm led by shady businessman Viktor Cherevin (Branagh, Pirate Radio) to try to tank the U.S. economy.  Ryan is then activated as a field agent and sent to Moscow to try to get more intel from Cherevin himself, but things get dicey when he tries to explain to Cathy, now his fiancée, about his affairs without giving up the true nature of his occupation.  With the potential for a second Great Depression for his country, Ryan must finagle his way through tribulations both professional and personal in order to effect the best possible outcome for a woman, an organization, and a nation, all counting on what he does during the course of a few short days in Moscow.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit has been released in the cold month of January, which is a time usually relegated to films that don't have the firm backing of the studios to try for a major push at the box office against stiffer competition in more competitive seasons.  Although Jack Ryan isn't as bad as most projects you might find released in this time period, it is the worst of the films that feature the character, and certainly is the one that might connect with a modern audience the least. 

Chris Pine does fill the shoes of Ryan convincingly, with his All-American good-guy demeanor, intelligence and knack for handling a decent action scene.  Interestingly, though he is playing Ryan at the very beginning of his career, Pine happens to be about the same age as Alec Baldwin and Ben Affleck at the time they played the character -- actually, he is a bit older.  As he's early in the relationship with Cathy, he even gets to be a bit of a romantic hero as well. 

Unfortunately, there isn't much on-screen chemistry between him and co-star Knightley, who is not utilized well in this film except as a slightly more spunky damsel in distress, and whose American accent doesn't stay consistent enough to be believable.  Plus, the way she is shoehorned into the main plot is both unconvincing and draws out some ludicrous story developments, exacerbated by a climax that actually culminates with whether or not she bites down on a light bulb that has been placed in her mouth -- no joke!  On a positive note, Kevin Costner is fully in his element as Ryan's mentor in the CIA, though his role is relatively minor in the long run.

The film features its director, Kenneth Branagh, as the film's Bond-esque "talks too much" bad guy, which is a bit unfortunate given how obvious it is that he is adopting a fake accent and doesn't have the on-screen gravitas to make for a formidable foil.  If the film's best scene involves Jack and Cathy playing a mind game with Viktor at a dinner table, this film is in trouble, because it casts its evil mastermind as one of the most easily duped simpletons to nearly take down a nation.  Not only does he get his wallet lifted in the most commonplace of fashions, but can't see through the idiotic faux-drunken display from Ryan, encouraging him to take a walk, allowing lots of time to use what's in said wallet to undermine his whole operation.  Yes, it plays that moronic. While the film clicks along at a decent pace, Branagh, as a director, doesn't raise the level of the action or thrills much above television industry standard.  For long stretches like this, Jack Ryan feels like leftovers taken from a collection of older, better films.

Jack Ryan fans will likely enjoy this more than most, even though it is obviously not an adaptation of an actual Clancy book, and it does stray from the canon in significant ways for the reboot that may irk the purists.  In fact, the screenplay for the film had been written by first-time screenwriter Adam Cozad as a non-Jack Ryan thriller in 2007 called Dubai, but was later retooled with the help of David Koepp (Premium Rush, Angels and Demons) to conform to the Clancy series. However, as a modern-day action-thriller, this cliché-laden iteration of Jack Ryan is as archaic as new tales of the Cold War itself, and will likely not connect with anyone who isn't nostalgic for the musty days of American-Russian spy vs. spy potboilers. 

That Jack Ryan doesn't deliver hand-to-hand combat with the verve of Jason Bourne or defy death as spectacularly as Ethan Hunt is commendable in this day and age of superhero-like actioners, but there isn't as much complexity in the script to feel like Jack Ryan is getting a good workout of the one tool that sets him apart from his brawny contemporaries: his brainpower.  Instead of an intricate game of chess between two masters, metaphorically, hero and villain would rather settle their differences by clumsily thumb-wrestling instead. Though we're supposed to be starting with a clean slate for a new generation unfamiliar with the Clancy character, Shadow Recruit still manages to live up to its name by painting Jack Ryan as a mere shadow of his former self.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2014 Vince Leo