Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (United States/Russia, 2014)

January 16, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit Poster

Probably the best way to approach a Jack Ryan movie is to look at it like a James Bond film. The lead actor keeps changing, the supporting actors are rarely the same, and the time period varies. Bond is Bond, whether he's played by Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, or Daniel Craig. In the same way, Jack Ryan is Jack Ryan, whether he's played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, or Chris Pine. And, just as the Bond filmmakers moved beyond Ian Fleming's written material, so the Ryan movie-makers have now taken the character away from Tom Clancy's novels. The core essentials that made the previous Jack Ryan movies accessible and enjoyable remain intact in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, even if many of the individual pieces have changed. What remains undecided at this point is whether or not this fifth Ryan production will represent a Casino Royale-style reboot for the franchise. Is this it for Clancy's hero or does he have more cinematic adventures ahead of him?

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit provides the best motion picture adventure for the title character since his introduction in The Hunt for Red October. This also doubles as an "origin story," taking viewers back to his beginnings. In this telling, that's 9/11/01, when Ryan (Chris Pine) watches the Twin Towers burn on TV while attending college in England and thereafter decides to devote himself to the protection of his country from all enemies "foreign and domestic." After being injured in Afghanistan, he is recruited by Commander Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) to join the CIA as an analyst. The Jack Ryan readers know from Clancy's books is still in the formative stages here and he's more of an action hero than has previously been seen.

Ryan's role changes from analytical to operational when, in his capacity as an undercover agent on Wall Street, he discovers the seeds of a Russian conspiracy to crash the U.S. economy. The scheme, unlike the ones at the center of many espionage thrillers, sounds at least remotely plausible. Ordered by Harper, Ryan heads off to Moscow to investigate. The mastermind of the plot, Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), sees the American as "dangerous" and seeks to have him eliminated. Meanwhile, dodging bullets and thwarting attempts on his life takes its toll on Ryan's relationship with his fiancée, Cathy (Kiera Knightley), who thinks his evasiveness might be evidence of an affair.

Director Kenneth Branagh, who showed in his Shakespeare adaptations that he understands how to maintain a smooth, controlled pace, uses that quality to good advantage in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. There are at least three action sequences (a hotel ambush, a heist, and a car chase) that, in less expert hands, could have been dull and generic. As choreographed by Branagh, they crackle with tension and suspense. At its best, the movie feels relentless, almost exhausting. The necessary connective tissue between the adrenaline-fueled scenes is also deftly handled; the movie rarely threatens to bog down due to excessive exposition. At the same time, there's a little time for character development.

There are some structural issues in the movie's final half-hour after the scene shifts from Russia to the United States. Although the filmmakers find a way to make the climax thrilling, it's preceded by a segment featuring a group gathered in a "war room" making deductions about the identity and location of a terrorist. This isn't inherently cinematic material and, although Branagh keeps the energy level high, there's a sense that the movie has wandered off-track, if only for a little while. Getting Ryan back into the heart of the action requires a cheat, although it's necessary to avoid an unsatisfying ending.

Chris Pine, perhaps best known for playing Star Trek's Captain James T. Kirk Version 2.0, has the presence and physicality to make Ryan a more Bond-esque action hero than he has been in the past. Pine is an excellent choice for this re-envisioning of the role and he takes the character in a different direction. Playing Ryan's soon-to-be wife, Kiera Knightley is strong and appealing. Kevin Costner is solid in the "mentor" role - a part that seems well-suited to him at this stage of his career. And Branagh provides a villain who is less of a 007-style megalomaniac and more of a misguided patriot.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was originally scheduled for a December release but was bumped by Paramount to open up a slot for The Wolf of Wall Street. Its delay gives movie-goers something to get excited about in January. This is summer blockbuster quality entertainment delivered in the dead of winter - a most welcome development.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (United States/Russia, 2014)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2014-01-17
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1