Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is entertaining

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2 out of 4 stars

Tom Clancy’s death this past October left an undeniable hole in the hearts of spy fans everywhere. His post-Cold War novels used detail and suspense to grab the collars of his readers and drag them all the way to a terrifyingly plausible end… until Jack Ryan would save the day, of course.

The latest iteration in the film adaptations of Clancy’s characters comes to life on the big screen with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and this origin(ish) story is pretty fun(ish). A ridiculous storyline drags the film into the muck for the most part, but determined direction keeps the pace consistent enough to guarantee a wild ride.

Jack Ryan: A ridiculous storyline drags the film into the muck for the most part, but determined direction keeps the pace consistent enough to guarantee a wild ride. (Press photos)

Following a horrible accident from his days as a Marine, Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is hired by CIA executive Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) to work as an analyst on Wall Street. He discovers dubious accounts from a business mogul in Russia named Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) and is sent to Moscow to solve the problem. Ryan unknowingly uncovers a plot to cripple the economies of major countries, leaving Russia to recover healthily and take over as (cue ominous voice) the most powerful nation in the world. Ryan reluctantly becomes a field agent to stop this plot, only to have it complicated even more by the sudden appearance of his fiance Cathy (Keira Knightley).

David Koepp (Jurassic Park and Spider-Man) and first-time screenwriter Adam Cozad wrote this adaptation, and a number of problems exist.

  1. The idea that this stock-centric plot would make for an exciting, mass-appealing action-villain scheme is just insane.
  2. Everything is suddenly explained and figured out for us by the CIA operatives so that we are transported at the speed of plot to the appropriate locations without letting us follow along and piece the twists together ourselves.
  3. There are plenty of plot contrivances to go around, in particular Jack’s near decade long engagement to Cathy that keeps him from telling her he is in the CIA. Dude, she’s been holding out on you for almost ten years! Drop her like she’s hot!
  4. Wow, are there some big stretches in plausibility here. Doe-eyed Cathy’s inclusion in a CIA plot to stop Cherevin without a moment’s hesitation from Harper or anyone else destroys any sense of realism that was already established.
Some fun action scenes but overall the film falls a bit short. (Press photos)
Some fun action scenes but overall the film falls a bit short. (Press photos)

The silver lining on this messy script, thankfully, is its palatable, at times humorous dialogue.

Branagh also directs the film, which seems a bit of an odd choice considering his Shakespearean pedigree (he is known for his takes on Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing). However his most recent directorial work was on Thor, so it seems he fancies himself an action director. And he mostly succeeds.

Branagh heightens the tension of the CIA operations and keeps a healthy pace throughout. His treatment of true action scenes is a bit messy, but this is mostly the fault of the editingteam (a split-second slide show of the inside of a chopper, a great movie helicopter crash does not make). True, he can’t help himself sometimes and depends heavily on imagery and cinematic beauty to a fault. But you will never find yourself bored by the action in the near two-hour runtime.

Branagh’s biggest issue is that he can’t seem to hold on to really superb themes. Following his first kill, Jack holds a haunted stare at his victim for what seems like a full minute, and this shot is incredibly effective at showing his terror and loss of innocence. But Branagh swiftly drops this idea entirely, losing potentially intriguing character development altogether.

Jack Ryan: Fun but not just great. (Press photos)
Jack Ryan: Fun but just not great. (Press photos)

Chris Pine is well cast here, his charisma being his biggest asset as an actor. His Jack Ryan is a fish out of water, and Pine finds genuine moments to remind us of this. Keira Knightley, sporting a ridiculous Valley girl accent, is let down by her writers and comes off shrewish and a little bit crazy. Kenneth Branagh has always had the chops to make a great Clancy villain, so this should have been a walk in the park for him. He unfortunately depends too much on his Boris Badenov accent and stoicism here, making him more of a Johnny Quest villain, and not a great one.  Props to Kevin Costner for maintaining a sense of subtlety and, on occasion, humor.

The potential for this film to be great makes it all the more frustrating that it is merely “fun”. The idea to make this script was the first mistake, the pitfalls within it the second. Thankfully Branagh’s potential as a great action director is clear. So, sloppiness aside, this film may appeal to the mass audience it is clearly aimed at.  That audience should take this piece solely for what it is though: highfalutin action from start to finish.

This review first appeared on the Baltimore Post-Examiner