Tom Clancy, the master of the American military thriller, died in October at the age of 66 but left behind a library of terrific espionage novels, several of which featured CIA analyst Jack Ryan. The nicest thing one can say about Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the fifth big-screen vehicle featuring the titular hero and the first with Chris Pine in the role, is that it does not tarnish the character’s legacy. However, it is not the riveting franchise starter that Paramount may have wanted it to be. Instead, Kenneth Branagh’s film works best as a slender if diverting piece of entertainment, curt and focused on delivering a few big thrills and nothing more.
We open on September 11, 2001, as the title character watches the Twin Towers collapse on television. Ryan soon abandons the student life at the London School of Economics and heads to Afghanistan to serve as a Marine. However, he becomes the victim of rocket fire and spends several months recuperating from a life-threatening injury. With a limp in his gait, he falls for the med student assisting him through recovery, Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley, with a nondescript American accent).
However, before he can get control of his legs again, CIA operative William Harper (Kevin Costner) offers him the chance to use his sharp brain to help fight the War on Terror. Ryan’s skills as a financial analyst could help the agency uncover the source of covert funding for terror groups. The film then shifts into present day, as Ryan realizes there is something up with a collection of hidden accounts linked to Russian business tycoon Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh). He flies to Moscow as a field operative to investigate Cherevin, leaving Cathy wilting at home and the dry, devilish Russian businessman on high alert.
Fitting into the suit of a character that Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and – to a lesser extent – Ben Affleck wore confidently on the big screen, Pine is a merely serviceable Jack Ryan, though he still looks like a Boy Scout, and one character often refers to him as such. Regardless, the actor shares sparkling chemistry with Knightley and takes on Branagh’s baddie with just the right amount of verbal cocksureness. Unfortunately, the rather pedestrian script from Adam Cozad and David Koepp gives the character small scraps of backstory and even less of a personality. As a result, his quick ascent from analyst to operative seems too rapid and unchallenging.
Also problematic is that Cozad and Koepp never follow through on the early scenes of Ryan’s injury and recovery by inserting any challenges later on in the film that feature the character facing his weakened stamina. Meanwhile, as Harper, Kevin Costner gets little to do but bark orders at his recruit – although he does oversee Ryan’s evolution with commanding authority.
As the insinuating, heroin-injecting villain with a sneaky Russian accent, Branagh is refreshingly understated. The actor/director could have hammed up the material but instead, he gives the role a menacing mixture of coyness and creepiness. However, as the film’s director, Branagh fares better pacing moments of quiet, sustained suspense than creating high-octane action sequences.
The big set pieces arrive on the screen slapped together in a harshly edited manner, a chaotic although customary pattern for current action thrillers. Some creative types believe that the best way to generate excitement is to cut quickly, cut often and disorient the viewer through frenetic action that gives the impression of unfettered chaos. (Another directorial choice of Branagh’s that does not work: condensing the length of a chase sequence through the streets of Moscow with jump cuts, a distracting stylistic flourish.)
Regardless, it is Branagh’s turn as Cherevin that leaves the longest impression, even if his motivations are shallow and questionable. He retains some of the Russian menace that recalls some of Clancy’s fanciest Soviet villains. It is simpler for a man of Branagh’s stature, as a respected actor and director of Shakespearean adaptations, to embody a man who uses cunning wit as a weapon. Admittedly, Pine does his best to project intelligence, but he looks a bit wimpy standing across from Branagh.
When Cherevin and Ryan share stories of their time in Afghanistan in different eras – the former in the days of the USSR, the latter in 2003 – the Russian magnate mutters that it was a “different time, different empire, same graveyard.” This is about as nuanced as Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit gets in excavating a connection between the world of modern terrorism and Clancy’s early Cold War concoctions.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is efficient, entertaining and often exciting. Nevertheless, it is as generic as its neutered title and may be forgotten as soon as the United States and Russia face off in another arena – at the Winter Olympics. The time and empire may be different, but Clancy’s commanding hero does not have the same resonance both in a post 9/11-world and in a cinematic realm recently riveted by strong portrayals of James Bond and Jason Bourne. If Casino Royale merits five stars and The Bourne Supremacy four, then Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit deserves no more than three. It is the cinematic equivalent of a paperback thriller one picks up at an airport: fast-paced and frenetic, but also flimsy and forgettable.
Exciting and elementary, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a perfunctory franchise starter that has the spirit, if not the substance, of early Clancy adaptations.