When Tom Clancy died last year at the age of 66, even as us fans mourned his loss, one thing that we could all agree on was that he succeeded in creating a character who would never die, in the form of spy Jack Ryan. So far, in addition to the nine Ryan novels Clancy penned, we’ve seen Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and now Chris Pine in films featuring the character.
Hopefully, we’ll have more names to add to that list in a few decades – Jack Ryan is up there with James Bond as one of the best literary spies, so there’s a strong chance we’ll see more cinematic adventures with him. However, until more Jack Ryan films come out of Hollywood, we can take a look at his latest iteration, as played by Pine in the Kenneth Branagh-directed Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and ask the crucial question, does it do right by its source material?
The answer, as it turns out, is yes – if only just. Shadow Recruit isn’t the most creative of spy thrillers, introducing Ryan as a character and only managing a handful of small-scale action sequences before leaping into its grand finale. And Pine does a serviceable job in the part but never gets the opportunity to own it. He’s far too busy racing from country to country to build a personality.
Despite those problems, Shadow Recruit succeeds in nailing the intelligence and relevance of Clancy’s novels. It takes the bold move of tossing out all past incarnations of the character, painting Ryan as a former Marine who becomes a CIA analyst after he’s injured in the Afghanistan War. That Ryan felt obliged to enlist after watching the 9/11 attacks neatly brings the character into the 21st century. It’s also a move of which Clancy would probably approve, seeing as the writer used that plot point for his Jack Ryan Jr. series.
When we first find Ryan nestled into his CIA job, he’s no field agent. Instead, he works from a posh office in Wall Street, juggling a cover job as a compliance officer at a stock brokerage while actually scanning financial transactions for signs of possible terrorist activity. When he unearths a suspicious inconsistency in the world marketplace just as the U.S. and Russia are preparing to throw down over a pipeline, Ryan is able to trace missing trillions to Russian mogul Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, aces both in front of and behind the camera). At the urging of his handler Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), Ryan begins to investigate in Moscow, only to find his life quickly endangered. Luckily, the Marine training kicks in, and he’s able to survive his first night. However, the clock’s ticking on Cherevin’s scheme, and Ryan finds himself distracted when his girlfriend Cathy (Keira Knightley) senses that he’s hiding something from her and abruptly arrives in Russia, hoping to strengthen their relationship.
If that sounds like a lot for one thriller to handle, don’t worry. Branagh’s exceedingly taut direction keeps Shadow Recruit from ever slowing down, and there’s hardly a dull moment. Adam Cozad and David Koepp’s script, too, does an admirable job of translating the finance-heavy plot for general audiences without being insulting or imbecilic. The action sequences are handled with skill and style, though there are surprisingly few of them. This isn’t Mission: Impossible – much of the story is driven by bank transactions and suspenseful exchanges, and Ryan only gets violent when he has no other alternative. That’s quite refreshing, especially because it signifies that the filmmakers do understand their protagonist.
Still, there are a few squeaky wheels. Knightley’s love interest is one of them – in their attempt to craft a strong female character who’s integral to the story, Cozad and Koepp wound up sacrificing believability in places. The actress herself does the best with what she’s given, but the character isn’t particularly endearing. Additionally, Ryan’s careful development caves in during the film’s final third, when the writers can’t resist the temptation to turn him into an indestructible action hero.
In the end, Shadow Recruit‘s biggest flaw is its obscure title. And when I can say that about a film, I’m usually pretty happy with what it has to offer. The acting is fine all around (Branagh, in a delicious Russian accent, particularly hits every note as the Bond villain-esque Cherevin), the movie looks terrific and the plot gets a surprising amount right about Ryan. Shadow Recruit isn’t perfect by a long stretch – in fact, this is the rare spy thriller that would have benefitted from going on a little longer – but as action fare, it’s slickly made and exceedingly well-executed.
No expense was spared by Paramount in bringing Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit to Blu-Ray. The absolutely stellar 1080p video transfer is a wonder to behold, filled with rich detail and deep, inky shadows. With this high-level quality, the image clarity is top-notch at every moment, so much so that every image I paused the film on was instantly engaging. The city backgrounds, the sheen on a hotel room bathroom floor, facial details, it’s all marvelous. I never noticed anything even slightly amiss with the video quality on this transfer – it’s typically superb, even flawless work from Paramount.
The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Track is also extremely impressive, working to bring viewers into the film with a dynamic range of sound, from Patrick Doyle’s heart-stoppingly dramatic score to crisp and even dialogue. There’s a wide array of sound on display in Shadow Recruit, from faint city sounds to pouring rain and deafening gunshots, and all of it is truly immaculate. I can’t rave enough about the terrific work done for the audio track on this release. It’s really as good as you’re going to get for a high-octane spy thriller like this.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit comes outfitted with a comprehensive group of bonus features. A DVD copy, and a UV and iTunes-compatible digital copy, are also included. The extras are:
- Audio Commentary
- Jack Ryan: The Smartest Guy in the Room (13:37)
- Sir Kenneth Branagh: The Tsar of Shadow Recruit (9:49)
- Jack Ryan: A Thinking Man of Action (5:19)
- Old Enemies Return (21:33)
- Deleted and Extended Scenes (5:03)
As conducted by director Kenneth Branagh and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, the audio commentary is an engaging, feature-length listen. The two men talk about pretty much everything aspect of Shadow Recruit you could imagine, from the nuances of Doyle’s score and its indispensability to reasons for on-screen character actions and the difficulties of working on a $60 million budget. It’s a remarkably even and enjoyable commentary, boosted by the fact that Branagh and di Bonaventura are clearly two highly intelligent guys who know how both cinema and Tom Clancy novels work.
“Jack Ryan: The Smartest Guy in the Room” looks at the various on-screen iterations of Jack Ryan, from Baldwin up through Pine. It’s really a tribute to the main character and how he’s stood the test of time, featuring interviews with the cast and crew of this film and previous Ryan entries. It also explores the challenges that the filmmakers faced in getting Shadow Recruit off the ground and breathing new life into a long-dormant franchise.
Even more so than the previous featurette I mentioned is a tribute to Jack Ryan, “Sir Kenneth Branagh: The Tsar of Shadow Recruit” is a paean to Branagh, focusing on both his abilities as a director of many fine films and as a theater-trained actor who brings intensity, believability and intrigue to every character he plays. I very much enjoyed watching the featurette peer behind the scenes of Shadow Recruit – but then again, I’m a huge fan of Branagh. Needless to say, those who aren’t shouldn’t be watching a featurette that bears his name.
If “The Smartest Guy in the Room” is about Ryan’s characterization and layered history, “A Thinking Man of Action” is more about Shadow Recruit and the action sequences performed during the film. Yes, it fulfills its title by talking about how some of the scenes inform character, but mostly this featurette is worth watching for the behind-the-scenes look at how the filmmakers pulled off death-defying stunts and carefully planned out each and every shot.
By far the best extra on the disc is “Old Enemies Return,” an extended and insightful look into U.S.-Russian relations over the decades. It makes a lot of very good points about how American cinema demonizes the Russians, and how the inhabitants of that nation are often utilized as villains in spy thrillers in particular, but it really succeeds by bringing lots of renowned academics into interviews and getting them to talk about the history between the two nations.Russian and American relations today are also discussed in the featurette. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to become a little more knowledgable about the world they live in.
Finally, the deleted and extended scenes offers a few nice moments, but it’s easy to see why each scene included was cut. There’s an extended version of the scene where Knightley’s character finds a ticket stub in Ryan’s pocket. In one added bit, Ryan’s chauffeur from Cherevin demonstrates the tycoon’s influence by driving down the wrong side of a Moscow street in plain view of police. Two tiny scenes show Ryan walking around Cherevin’s headquarters when he first visits. There’s a transition scene that shows Ryan and Harper’s helicopter landing in New York in order to thwart a terror attack. Finally, there’s an alternate ending that removes the major action sequence in the finale. It’s easy to see why Branagh went with the more exciting conclusion.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit isn’t a perfect movie, but with a Blu-Ray transfer as amazing as this, I can heartily recommend picking up a copy. The video and audio quality is terrific, and the extras are pretty good as well. As for the film, it doesn’t attempt to do anything new, but it’s a sturdily built and finely acted thriller. Even with its lack of surprises, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is still a very good time.
Though it's not perfect, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is slickly made and exceedingly well-executed action entertainment.