Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is Paramount Pictures’ fifth entry in the franchise that is sort of like a car engine that just won’t start. Beginning with 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, Paramount has previously released four Jack Ryan movies with three different actors. The most recent, 2002’s The Sum of all Fears (which stars Ben Affleck) was a reboot, and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (now starring Chris Pine) is yet another. In fact, Shadow Recruit updates the series chronologically and is not actually based on any particular Tom Clancy Jack Ryan novel. The DNA of the Marine-turned-CIA superagent is here, but the 9/11 attacks now serve as Ryan’s inspiration to start his path of serving his country.
During his service in Afghanistan, Ryan is wounded when his helicopter is shot down. While rehabbing at Walter Reed he meets the beautiful med student Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley, who surprises with an American accent that’s much improved over the one she used in The Jacket in 2005) and the mysterious William Harper (Kevin Costner), who recruits Ryan for the CIA. Ryan has a good mind for numbers, so Harper places him in a Wall Street desk job where he can watch international stock markets for signs of economic terrorism. When he has to travel to Moscow to investigate a troubling lead regarding stocks owned by Russian billionaire Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, who also directed the movie), Ryan’s desk job soon turns into a deadly pursuit that forces him to take a more dangerous role in the CIA.
Unfortunately, in Pine’s hands Ryan is just not that interesting of a character, which is a shocking thing to say about a character who has sold hundreds of thousands of books. But in Shadow Recruit there’s not much humanity to latch on to. He treats his fiance poorly (albeit a lot of that is having to keep his CIA secrets) and spends half of the film doubting his abilities. On that note, in this movie Ryan goes from being unsure of himself and forgetting his codewords to being an expert CIA agent in the span of about forty-eight hours. This culminates with a scene in which he teaches an airplane full of CIA snoops how to track down a terrorist using their computers. This is work that Ryan presumably has never done before, but he’s telling CIA agents who have probably done this hundreds of times how to do their jobs. If these agents really need someone like Ryan to tell them to search Facebook in order to find out information about someone perhaps we don’t have to worry much about the U.S. government spying on us. I understand that Shadow Recruit is meant to be an origin story that isn’t bogged down by the typical story beats of an origin story, but Shadow Recruit takes the concept of learning on the job to rather ludicrous levels.
Regardless, I think Pine was the wrong choice for this role because he doesn’t have the “everyman” presence that the character conveys in the earlier scenes. Ryan isn’t James Bond, no matter how sophisticated this movie tries to make Ryan look. From the moment Pine appears on screen (laughably as a college student) he doesn’t seem comfortable portraying this kind of character.
Pine is not the only actor having trouble finding the voice for his character. Costner seems pretty bored with the role. I’m guessing it’s supposed to mean his character is level-headed, but he’s remarkably understated, even for Costner. I’m trying to find something nice to say about Knightley, but she’s regulated to the damsel in distress role aside from a telling verbal duel with Branagh’s character. With that said, Branagh’s performance is an over-the-top stereotype of a cold, humorless Russian. He is sadistic, alcoholic, violent, has a Napoleon fetish and listens to classical music. In other words, he is a textbook evil genius.
The only saving grace here is that Branagh is a good director so he makes the most he possibly can out of what is essentially a script of plot holes. He develops the right tone with both the film and his character and the edge-of-your-seat tension scenes play out really well. The action sequences are filmed well even if they make little sense (the climatic race against the clock sequence is logically silly), and everything feels dumbed down to appeal to popcorn-munching teenagers. It’s a shame because Clancy’s novels are anything but dumb. Screenwriter David Koepp isn’t known for subtely, and newcomer co-writer Adam Cozad brings nothing to make this any better than the dozens of generic spy thrillers already on NetFlix or the much superior Bourne movies.
So I guess if Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit had a different script and a different star it could’ve been a good movie. Of course, it would have been an entirely different movie. I think Paramount will discover that it will have to go back to the drawing board yet again with its Jack Ryan franchise, and considering the first four films were all financially successful I doubt they’d hesitate to try it again for the sixth time… even if this one isn’t.
RATING: A disappointingly generic, dumbed down version of Tom Clancy’s signature character (5/10).