Film Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Kenneth Branagh’s reboot of the all-purpose Tom Clancy hero wastes crisp direction and an eager cast on a by-the-numbers ticking-bomb plot
Film Journal, 15 January 2014
There’s a way of directing spy thrillers that calls for speed. In a story with multiple vectors of villainy, revving up the momentum makes for a good way to simulate the confusion of a hero trying to navigate a dangerous world. But the swift new Kenneth Branagh take on Tom Clancy’s analyst-turned-operative hero illustrates another reason to keep things clicking along: That way, nobody will realize just how rote the story is.
For this second reboot after 2002’s unloved Ben Affleck vehicle 'The Sum of All Fears', the Cold War franchise is repurposed for new threats with a dramatically younger-seeming hero. It’s a high-action and chase-heavy origin story in the more self-aware 'Casino Royale' mold, with brisker action and nods at its hero’s vulnerabilities. Chris Pine is now the fourth actor to strap on the security badge as Jack Ryan. With his glowing blue eyes and the demeanor of a just-barely-reformed frat guy fresh out of college, he’s by far the most schoolboy of the lot, though at 34 he’s actually older than Alec Baldwin was when inaugurating the character in 1990’s 'The Hunt for Red October'. Pine isn’t the worst choice for the part, he has a whippet physicality and a crafty gleam, but it’s hard to see him growing old in this role.
A neatly handled pre-title section provides this Ryan with all the badges of experience that Clancy had planned for him (economics degree, Marine experience, back injury, investment work, recruited to the CIA), while also hitting some of the stations of the cross for the war-on-terror era (9/11, Afghanistan, Walter Reed). Instead of James Earl Jones’ stentorian Admiral Greer, Ryan’s mentor is now Thomas Harper, played by a canny Kevin Costner who introduces himself with a mock-theatrical whisper: “I’m in the CIA.” Harper recruits Ryan for the agency while the ex-Marine is undergoing physical therapy and himself trying to recruit the future Mrs. Ryan: Keira Knightley as future doctor Cathy Muller. The Agency pays for Ryan to finish his economics doctorate and sends him undercover at a Wall Street investment firm.
Cut to several years later and Ryan notices suspiciously veiled accounts from Moscow. Being preternaturally astute in that TV-detective way — without the borderline autistic behavior — Ryan deduces that there’s a shadowy Russian plot to artificially build up the American dollar and then crash it. Off he goes to Moscow under the pretense of doing compliance work for the firm. After a bungled assassination attempt that turns his hotel room into a fixtures-smashing battle royale, Ryan has killed his first man and realized—long after the audience has known—that his firm’s Russian investors are in fact ruthless gangsters working on behalf of the Kremlin, represented by a nicely sinister and unbilled Mikhail Baryshnikov.
The swift-moving but sometimes ungainly Adam Cozad and David Koepp script laces its frequently outrageous developments with attempts at being a throwback spy movie, albeit one that imagines a fantastical world in which the CIA and FBI liberally share information. There are references to traditional espionage tradecraft throughout and acknowledgements of Ryan’s more flesh-and-blood nature which seem almost like throwbacks in the era of the more robotic Salt and Bourne operatives. After introducing Ryan’s Russian foil, Viktor Cherevin (Branagh), it even briefly seems as though the film could turn into more of a character-based thriller. Branagh wrings every ounce of pleasure possible out of Cherevin’s mix of coiled, calculated fury and reckless abandon. The elements briefly come together in a slickly handled potboiler dinner scene where Cherevin flirts with Muller while Ryan slips out to break into Cherevin’s office. Over the course of just a few remarks about Lermontov and life, Branagh and Knightley’s erotic sparring generates more heat than she and Pine manage throughout the rest of the film.
Branagh the director works hard to keep the momentum going after that scene, but it’s difficult. The details of the fiendish plot feel almost as generic as Cherevin’s doom-laden pronouncements. The staunch old Cold Warrior in Clancy would have appreciated the nostalgic tint to lines like “We will avenge our Mother Russia… America will bleed.” For a last quarter that sends Ryan and Harper scurrying about trying to dismantle Cherevin’s plot, Branagh cranks up the film’s speed, but it’s almost as though he’s just trying to race over the script’s increasing number of potholes.