This isn’t Chris Pine’s first rodeo. The handsome, confident (borderline cocky) leading man has endured the rigors of a scrutinized franchise “reboot,” laying claim to a recognizable pop-culture character and doing what you can to make it one’s own. Jack Ryan isn’t exactly Capt. James T. Kirk, but Pine’s past experiences at wrapping his arms – and inherent intelligence – around a recognizable role means he acclimates to Paramount’s attempt at rebooting Tom Clancy’s Cold War franchise faster than the movie is able to find its own legs. Pine deserves another crack at the role, but changes need to be made.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is the fifth Ryan movie, but first not to be adapted from an existing Clancy novel. Instead, director Kenneth Branagh and his screenwriting team cherry pick recognizable traits from the CIA analyst’s literary portfolio to construct a hero for a contemporary age.
We meet the young Ryan (Pine) as he’s studying abroad in London. He awakes from a peaceful nap on a campus bench and gravitates to nearby television screens, where crowds have gathered. Ryan witnesses the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and being the man of action we know him to be, promptly enlists. Branagh diverts, briefly, to Afghanistan, where Ryan is brutally injured in a helicopter crash – a nod to the character’s backstory that will make loyal Clancy readers smile. From there, it’s off to rehab and physical therapy, where Ryan meets the two people who will shape the direction of his personal and professional lives: Cathy (Keira Knightley), the kind and supportive medical student Jack courts; and Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), the CIA “ghost” who sees enormous potential in the damaged Ryan.
You think I’ve given away half the movie. Trust me, all of this takes place before the title reveal, as Shadow Recruit -- assigned to quickly introduce Jack Ryan to a new generation – speeds through the milestones in the character’s career so that we can hit the ground running (and continue to sprint if Paramount deems this worthy of a franchise).
The meat of Shadow Recruit pits Ryan – hired as a covert financial analyst for the CIA – against megalomaniacal Russian corporate exec Viktor Cherevin (Branagh, pulling double duty). Our government fears that we can be hit again following 9/11. They notice Cherevin and his cronies acquiring massive amounts of U.S. dollars, and wonder if it’s a move to damage our financial infrastructure. Ryan is deployed to Moscow to get to the bottom of Cherevin’s scheme.
That plot description should strike you as smarter than average, because Shadow Recruit -- as its Clancy predecessors – plays an intelligent game. Ryan isn’t Bond or Bourne. He’s forced to rely on his intellect more than his combat skills. There are action sequences sprinkled throughout the rapid-moving Shadow Recruit, but the best scenes find Ryan relying on his wits (and social media) to track his enemy and stay one step ahead of his nemesis.
In other words, Ryan works as a contemporary hero, and Pine establishes various reasons why Clancy’s “Boy Scout” should continue to confront espionage on a global scale. Shadow Recruit has its lingering problems. Through no fault of Knightley’s, the Cathy character is an underwritten obstacle who exists to nag Jack, handcuffing him to a silly keeping-secrets subplot that’s better suited for a Three’s Company episode. And Branagh’s heart isn’t in either the action sequences (choppy) or the Russian villain (cardboard) he’s asked to play. He digs into the character banter between Pine and a nimble Costner, then speeds through the big-ticket action pieces as if they were but a requirement.
Jack Ryan demonstrates how Pine lucked out with Star Trek. Abrams and his crew figured out a very clever way to reboot that existing franchise, giving us a younger Kirk without having to rewrite history. Shadow Recruit isn’t nearly as smooth. Still, a solid-enough foundation has been laid, and pieces exist to keep Paramount and Pine in the Jack Ryan business for the immediate future. Perhaps a hunt for a rogue submarine is in order?