Jack Ryan, as a young covert CIA analyst, uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack.
Jack Ryan. The most hardy of movie properties. Despite multiple failed attempts to establish a Bond-like franchise for the Tom Clancy hero, Hollywood keeps returning over and over to try again. Chris Pine’s Jack Ryan marks the fourth incarnation of the character in five films over a 24 year period. Hardly consistent stuff. Now, with the Bond franchise at a peak in its popularity, and without the competition of the flagging Bourne franchise, it would seem that Jack Ryan has returned at the most opportune of times. Alas, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself in the crowded field that is the thriller genre. As such it seems highly unlikely that Shadow Recruit will be anything more than yet another stand-alone entry in the series.
Everything looked so promising for Shadow Recruit. Having already proven himself in the Star Trek franchise, Chris Pine seemed like a perfect choice to take the titular role. Add to this the presence of Kenneth Branagh in both an acting and directing role and it was hard to see how this could all go wrong. Regrettably, somewhere along the way, it did.
The problems with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit are evident from the get-go.
Origin stories need to establish two things, why our hero wants to act, and how he gets to a position where he can. Perhaps the best example of this is in 2005’s Batman Begins which perfectly conveyed why Bruce Wayne wanted to become a hero, and showed the practical step he took in order to become one. Shadow Recruit does the latter in great detail, but the why is barely even touched upon.
In our very first scene with Jack Ryan we see him bear witness to the 9/11 attacks on television. This is the only motivation we are ever given for why he wants to fight for his country. While I’m sure many were horrified by the attacks, I would guess that it was only a relative few that signed up to fight afterwards. So what was it? Was Ryan motivated by a sense of duty? The desire for revenge? The need to protect loved ones? It’s never established. Instead in the next scene we find Ryan enrolled in the military. It feels as if we skipped a step somewhere and leaves Jack Ryan with little more development than a stock protagonist.
Unfortunately Chris Pine isn’t able to bring anything particularly interesting to the character either. It was clear in the Star Trek films that he was at his best when he was able to show Kirk’s arrogant and adventurous side. As Jack Ryan though he is called upon to play a much more serious role, and feels rather neutered doing so. In all honesty Chis Pine is rather bland in the role, proving he doesn’t have the talent to pull off a role with too much depth (which is what makes him so perfect to be the successor to William Shatner). Indeed his best scene is his first meeting with Kenneth Branagh’s ruthless Russian, Viktor Cherevin. Here in Pine is able to show the more cocky and funny side of Ryan, a side that we see far too little of.
There is one brief period in which it seems Ryan might be a relatable and interesting character. On his first field operation as a C.I.A. agent, Ryan finds himself in deeper trouble than he had anticipated or was ready for. He is out of his depth, scared, and unsure of what to do, like anyone would be. These are problems that Bourne and Bond never had to face and it is truly interesting to see how he deals with the pressure. He forgets his rendezvous point, makes what he believes may be his last call to his girlfriend (Kiera Knightley), and rightly or wrongly sees people following him everywhere.
Too quickly however he finds his feet and Shadow Recruit becomes just another action thriller. You would hope at least that the set-pieces would do something to shake up the formula, but we have seen all of this before. There is the obligatory car chase, the kidnapping of Ryan’s girlfriend, even a scene where he must sneak into the antagonists headquarters and hack into his computer (a set-piece that the Mission Impossible franchise has done many times over). Worst of all is the films denouement which centres around a ticking time bomb. It is all so derivative and lazy and as a result lacks any kind of palpable stakes.
The action is not all bad. Though derivative, it is at least well paced and competently directed. The best set-piece is the fight between Ryan and his “bodyguard” on his arrival in Russia. Admittedly it owes a lot to Daniel Craig’s first action sequence as Bond in Casino Royale. It is a brutal one-on-one fight with a much stronger opponent and has a riveting back and forth. It is enough to excite if not to do anymore than that.
The best you can say for Pine’s co-stars Kiera Knightley and Kevin Costner is that they are present. Any more than that would be too kind. They do little to elevate their characters above tired cliches. Kiera Knightley is simply Ryan’s love interest and Costner his mentor. They are archetypes in the most basic sense of the word.
Though Kenneth Branagh may not have been able to instil much into the tired material he was given as a director, as an actor he is far and away the best thing about the film. He clearly relishes playing Viktor Cherevin as the Cold War relic he is. Cherevin is a character we have seen time and time again in movies. He is stoic, aggressive, and ruthless, in short everything Hollywood has been telling us Russians are for decades. Still Branagh’s sheer intensity is fascinating to watch. In one scene, on realising he has been duped, he gives Kiera Knightley such an unrelenting steely stare that is truly intimidating and borderline scary.
Branagh’s performance is so good that it ends up being of detriment to the film. In the end Cheverin becomes the most human and relatable of all of the characters. Though he clearly needs to be stopped, he at least has clear and understandable motivations. He also has a personal emotional connection to the central conflict which, while only glimpsed at, clearly runs deep. It begs the question, how can the antagonists motivations be more clearly defined than the protagonists in, may I add, the protagonist’s own origin story?
If you are a fan of either the Bourne or Bond franchises there should be enough in here for you to enjoy. Branagh’s scenes are worth the admission price alone, and the action is enough to entertain for the film’s running time. Ultimately though Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit will soon be forgotten among the huge back catalogue of similarly average thrillers out there. As for Jack Ryan himself? I get the feeling it may be a while before we see him again, and most likely, when we do, it will be with a new face.