Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit: Before Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Tom Clancy’s straight-arrow CIA analyst character had been played by three different actors in four movies over the course of 12 years, and despite the turnover, all were hits. This includes the previous attempt to kick Ryan into a younger demo: the Ben Affleck version in The Sum of All Fears is weirdly considered a nonstarter, but it did numbers consistent with the rest of the series (and wasn’t very good, but is that ever really the reason a sequel doesn’t get made?). Nonetheless, Affleck had a bad run, he didn’t play Jack Ryan again, and the franchise lay dormant in the Paramount vault for a decade or so. Now it restarts with Chris Pine playing the once-again young Jack Ryan, who at this point may have aged even less onscreen than James Bond.
Ryan makes an interestingly American and relatively grounded counterpoint to Bond, but while he does introduce himself at one point as “Ryan… Jack Ryan,” Shadow Recruit owes more to Paramount in the 90s: not just the old Harrison Ford thrillers, but a touch of Mission: Impossible, along with a scale that seems quaint by today’s world-ending blockbuster scenarios. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit has maybe four action sequences, and most of them depend on suspense more than firepower or mayhem. Though not based on a specific Clancy book, the film condenses some Clancy-authored backstory in its opening moments, exploring Ryan’s origins, which now start on September 11, 2001. Despite the hurry and hyperbole of quickly skipping from 9/11 to a shot-down war helicopter to an inspiring triumph in physical therapy and accompanying meet-cute with an Americanized Keira Knightley, the opening section at least feels attentive to its central character, rather than impatiently beginning with action-sequence kabooms.
While in PT, Ryan meets with a shadowy operative (Kevin Costner) and eventually, in what seems like a neat tweak on the character’s history (I can’t say for sure, not having read the books), gets a job in finance—but undercover, for the CIA. This leads him to an adventure of sorts in Moscow, as he investigates a wealthy Russian (Kenneth Branagh) who may have a side in terrorism. Branagh also directs the film, shooting it with an old-Hollywood slyness that, however momentarily, brings to mind his delightful Dead Again—but where are the dramatically canted angles, and why does he sometimes capture images in such unnecessarily close quarters? As generally pleasing as the movie is to watch, it feels like it could have been a little kinkier visually—like Branagh was forced to cut a somewhat stylish movie out from an even more stylish one.
Shadow Recruit, then, errs on the side of generic; it even circles back to the Russians for villainy, although Branagh’s grimness in the role makes a good match for Pine’s doggedness. Pine himself is an odd fit for Ryan; as Captain Kirk in the Paramount/Skydance Star Trek, he’s slick and needling, and it’s not all that fun watching him play a straight arrow getting counsel from seasoned Costner. (Come to think of it, Ryan could have been Costner himself back in the early 90s.) But he’s watchable, as is Knightley who at least figures more into the story a touch more than the typical girlfriend of a CIA operative. With most of the dialogue going to these two plus Costner and Branagh, the movie feels underpopulated for this sort of thing, but that simplicity often works in its favor. It makes a mid-movie break-in sequence feel low-tech, even when it isn’t (it features very 90s-ish unspecified computer hacking). Given the pleasingly limited resources, it’s disappointing to realize later in the movie that Branagh has sidelined himself for the climax; it’s more realistic, probably, but mutes one of the movie’s best assets. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit isn’t especially twisty, and feels unmistakably less adult than, say, Clear and Present Danger. In its attempt to kickstart a vaguely retro franchise based on an older model, it recalls its Paramount/Skydance stablemate Jack Reacher—not quite as B-movie lean as that movie, but close enough for January work.