Mark Reviews Movies

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Lenn Kudrjawizki, Alec Utgoff, Peter Andersson, Colm Feore, Seth Ayott, Nonso Anozie

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and intense action, and brief strong language)

Running Time: 1:45

Release Date: 1/17/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 17, 2014

Jack Ryan's age shouldn't matter. As he says in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, he's "just an analyst" for the CIA, not an agent. He's a man of intellect, not of action. Chris Pine may be the second oldest actor to play the role of Tom Clancy's semi-iconic character, but he's definitely the most youthful in spirit, playing Ryan as a happily eager upstart who has qualms about getting involved in the field. As envisioned by screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp, this is also the most active incarnation of the character.

It's an odd choice, not only because the character's background here doesn't exactly make his physical feats totally plausible but also because the reliance on Ryan's abilities to fight well, run fast, and drive like a professional detract from the very thing that separates him from any other action hero who can do those things, too. His analytical skills are reduced to a lengthy monologue just before the climax in which he orders a bunch of people to search various databases and social networking websites on computers—a task that seems a lot less impressive and completely ordinary in this day and age. Technology hasn't made Ryan completely obsolete, but this franchise reboot doesn't make a good argument that the character is necessary, either.

The movie does start with some promise, as a college-age Ryan is at a university in London when the attacks of September 11, 2001 occur. Two years later, he is a Marine serving in Afghanistan until an RPG attack on a helicopter nearly kills and almost leaves him paralyzed. He flirts with Cathy (Keira Knightley), a medical student, in physical therapy and receives some praise for an extracurricular intelligence report he did in the Marines from Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), a commander in the Navy who also works for the CIA. Harper works for a unit that makes sure the United States is never attacked again, and 10 years later, Ryan is working undercover on Wall Street trying to detect any sources that may be funding terrorist groups.

The setup suggests a different kind of Ryan. Here's a man whose injuries limit him physically. He still walks with a trace of a limp and does his routine jogs while wearing a back brace, and those impediments seem to keep him restricted to pleasantries at an office and examining spreadsheets of accounts, attempting to find strange transactions.  The way Cozad and Koepp incorporate the ongoing concerns of a post-9/11 world without extreme fear-mongering (i.e., a nuclear weapon detonating in a major American city, as in the previous—but still effective—Ryan adventure) feels right, too. It's a subdued framework for the character that places him in a representation of the world that is far closer to reality than geopolitical fantasy.

The illusion of authenticity dissipates rather quickly when the convoluted and only somewhat clarified plot begins. The story suggests that, as a character, Ryan can survive a world where any information one might need is a smartphone away but is doomed to be stuck in a Cold War mentality.

The villain is Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, who also directed the movie), a Russian businessman with shadowy ties to the Kremlin and the FSB. His plan is the economic devastation of the United States by doing something that will result in something else, which will, somehow, devalue the dollar and cause a second Great Depression. There's also a terrorist attack, involving with a "family" of sleeper agents in Dearborn, Michigan, at play here, and yes, that inevitably leads to uncomfortable scenes of people scurrying in fear around the Financial District in Manhattan and, more conventionally, a bomb with a digital timer as the target of a car/motorcycle chase.

Ryan is in Moscow to investigate Cherevin, and upon arriving at his hotel room, he's shot at and attacked by one of Cherevin's men, leading to a brutal fight and killing. Later, he must infiltrate Cherevin's building to download files from the computer system (a cliché that is now as inescapable as a digital timer on a bomb) and encounters resistance from guards. Eventually, there's another car chase through the streets of Moscow with Cathy as a damsel in distress. Ryan endures a lot of rough and tumble with no repercussions for a man who experienced such catastrophic injuries.

These are entirely generic scenarios, and they gradually overwhelm the movie's more intriguing elements.  Beyond the initial expository scenes, there is also the strained relationship between Ryan and Cathy, which is familiar to material like this but has the benefit of a section during that subplot in which Cathy is a much stronger character than we might expect (It's in between the parts when she's a jealous nuisance and a hostage in need of rescuing). It leads to the movie's best scene—a battle of focused playacting at a fancy restaurant in which Ryan and Cherevin have to disguise their obvious suspicions of each other. It's here that Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit feels like an improvised game of espionage instead of merely going through the motions as it is too comfortable to do.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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