Directed by: Kenneth Branagh.
Written by: Adam Cozad and David Koepp based on characters created by Tom Clancy.
Starring: Chris Pine (Jack Ryan), Keira Knightley (Cathy Muller), Kevin Costner (Thomas Harper), Kenneth Branagh (Viktor Cherevin), Lenn Kudrjawizki (Constantin), Alec Utgoff (Aleksandr Borovsky), Peter Andersson (Dimitri Lemkov), Elena Velikanova (Katya), Nonso Anozie (Embee Deng), Seth Ayott (Teddy Hefferman), Colm Feore (Rob Behringer), Gemma Chan (Amy Chang).
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is the fifth film starring Tom Clancy’s famous CIA Agent in the past 23 years – and is the first one not directly based on one of Clancy’s many Ryan novels. If this ends up kick starting a new Ryan franchise, not being beholden to Clancy’s novels may end up being a good thing for a new series. As good as The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear & Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears were – and they all have their charms, even if none came close to matching the first film, Red October – part of the problem with them is having to adapt Clancy’s huge, heavily plotted novels into a two hour runtime. I remember as a teenager being amazed that the first 200 pages or so of Clear & Present Danger was dispatched of in all of about 5 minutes of screen time in the movie. Such are the perils of adapting such long novels.
The film also features the fourth different actor to play Ryan – this time Chris Pine steps into the role, as a younger Ryan – an eager go-getter who leaves his studies at the London School of Economics on 9/11 and joins the Marines. Shot down over Afghanistan, his military career seems to be over – but he is approached by Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who tells him, jokingly at first, that he’s in the CIA. He wants Jack for his unit – which he says is responsible “for making sure we don’t get hit again”. What this means for Ryan is years undercover working on Wall Street where he’s tasked with tracking down funding for terror networks. After years of this, he finally seems to have stumbled on something big – his firm’s Russian partners are hiding some accounts from him and his firm – a big no-no and red flag for Ryan – especially since from what little he can gleam from the information he has, they seem to be American currency accounts. Given a current state of unrest – Russia is pissed at America about something to do with an oil pipeline, and a hurricane is brewing in the Gulf – the dollar should be dropping, but it’s not. It appears to Ryan that the Russians are propping up the dollar – but why would they do that?
Pine is well suited for this version of Jack Ryan. He is young, charming, good looking and has the look of an idealist and true believer. He isn’t quite a puppy dog licking your face to get you to like him, but he’s not all that far off from that either. It’s difficult to see picture Pine’s Ryan transforming into the more cynical version Harrison Ford played twice – but he’s young, perhaps he’ll learn.
But the best performances in the movie belong to the two veterans. Kevin Costner has grown on me over the past few years as he has matured from a leading man into a character actor. He has the right world weary charm to play this role – he’s someone who still believes in what he does, even though he’s seen a lot more than Jack. Kenneth Branagh – who also directed – is even better as Viktor Cherevin, the Russian bad guy up to no good. When Branagh started making films – in 1989 – he immediately staked his claim as Laurence Olivier’s heir apparent by making Shakespeare’s Henry V – the first film Olivier made as a director as well. Branagh has done many Shakespeare movies over the years, but the changing movie industry seems to not allow him to do them as much anymore. So he’s decided to do the next best thing – and start having fun with accents, like Olivier often did. His exaggerated Russian accent here is great fun – not as fun as Olivier and his crazy French Canadian one in Powell & Pressburger’s 49th Parallel – but fun nonetheless. Branagh makes a charming villain – but also a cruel, heartless one when he wants to be. As a director, Branagh does a good job as well. I would prefer that the action sequences not be as heavy on the handheld camera work and rapid fire editing as they are - in particular the helicopter sequence and an extended hand-to-hand combat sequence in a hotel room, which are both so chopped up they become next to impossible to follow – but for the most part, Branagh plays things straight. He knows he’s making an old school spy thriller – even if it’s set in the present day – and he gets the job done.
Keira Knightley also shows up – in a largely thankless role as Ryan’s doctor girlfriend, who has so far rebuffed his marriage proposals. She spends far too long thinking Ryan is having an affair because he’s so secretive – but she does get some nice moments with Branagh over a tense dinner. Still I wish movies like this either gave their female characters more to do, or else jettisoned them altogether. Are we really still not past the whole damsel in distress thing?
For the most part, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit accomplishes what it sets out to do. This is an action-thriller for a somewhat older audience – who like a plot and character to go along with their gunfights and car chases. The plot is, of course, more than a little ridiculous – and the film’s climax uses the tired countdown clock gimmick. But for an action film in January, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit delivers nicely.