Over the last 20-plus years, and now five movies, Tom Clancy’s creation Jack Ryan has never been the deepest film character. In all of his various incarnations—Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and now Chris Pine—he’s the exact same type, a CIA analyst with a family who reluctantly gets drawn into action. Other than that, there’s not much to him. The latest Ryan adventure, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” is his origin story, but follows the path laid out in the previous films. Director Kenneth Branagh attempts to make you care about Ryan, but all of his efforts only amount to emotional blackmail, Cold-War style fear mongering, and a tedious romantic angle that sinks the film. I do, however, love that the Russians are the bad guys. As a child of the 1980s, no movie villain will ever be as nefarious as those Ruskies. But nostalgia aside, “Shadow Recruit” is, at the best of times, nothing more than a middle of the road thriller with zero bite, and at the worst, horrifically dull.
You first meet Ryan as a student in London. It just so happens to be September 11, 2001, and he watches in horror, along with the rest of the world, as the events of that day unfold. Fast-forward three years, he’s a Marine. His helicopter crashes in Afghanistan and he’s injured, though he still manages to drag his soldiers to safety even with a broken back. This selective injury will show up convenient times throughout the movie. His Marine background is part of Ryan’s history, but these moves in particular feel like cheap, lazy storytelling. Instead of doing actual work to develop the character or motivation, the script just tosses out these big moments, banking that you have a specific response to images of 9/11 or the idea of wounded members of the military.
Using shorthand like this is common, and is all supposed to add up to make you automatically think “hero” when you see Ryan. But the way that it’s done here you can’t help but feel kind of gross that the writers exploit a horrific tragedy to avoid spending time to build the main character. Another problem with setting your protagonist up as infallible and perfect is that you never doubt for a second that he will succeed, and with that, any tension goes out the window. Pine gives his Ryan as much charisma as you can hope for, but he isn’t given much to work with. If he had a good story, the “Star Trek” star could be a nice fresh addition, and finally turn this into a proper franchise.
Ryan’s relationship with Cathy, his future wife, played in this version by Kiera Knightley, is equally a half-assed. She’s his physical therapist and they flirt, and presto, ten years down the line they’re hopelessly in love, and she has no idea his boring Wall Street job is actually a cover for his real job, ferreting out funding for terrorist groups. In the blink of an eye you’ve covered the very basics of more than a decade of Jack Ryan’s life, which is the approach “Shadow Recruit” takes with everything. The movie is full of huge leaps and skips. Ryan spends a fair amount of time running, and so does the film, always in a hurry to get to the next empty set up, never giving you enough time settle in and enjoy, or care about, anything.
The entire film is rushed. You’re dragged through a series of typical spy thriller scenarios. Ryan has a tense stare down with an evil Russian businessman (Branagh) who is actually a terrorist; he has to break into a highly secure office using a bunch of high-tech tricks you’ve seen countless times; faceless goons almost grab him at every turn; his romantic interest is used against him; no one can possibly solve the problem but him. This is one of those movies where each and every move is predicable, like the plot was photocopied from a spy-movies-for-dummies book. It has all the bells and whistles you expect from a tale of international espionage, like faux-tense music and sinister Russians bent on destroying America, but they never add up to anything.
One thing that does bring a big-ass smile to my face about “Shadow Recruit” is that it features none other than Kevin Costner as Thomas Harper, the agent who recruits Ryan. Harper is the most earnest, straightforward CIA spook ever put on film. He’s apparently the good CIA. His team doesn’t water board prisoners, set up puppet dictatorships, or any of that nonsense you’ve come to expect from his ilk. Surely there must be honest CIA agents, but that’s boring. You wait for the other shoe to drop, but it never does. Instead he’s just a mentor to Jack, a drab pseudo father figure, which is something any young agent needs. But for a movie that desperately wants to be a twisted, cloak and dagger game, there are no shades of grey, everything is super black and white. Anyone who seems like good guy is good; anyone who seems like a bad guy is bad. There’s absolutely no nuance, and nothing lurks below the surface of “Shadow Recruit.”
Even the action in “Shadow Recruit” is a disappointment. Let’s just say that filming high-speed chase scenes may not be Branagh’s cup of tea. His fight scenes in “Thor” were okay; nothing worth bragging about, but there was nothing particularly terrible about them either. This time around is a very different story. There are a couple of hand-to-hand combat scenes, and a pair of big car chases, and they are not fun to watch. Good god, they are so hacked up and chaotic that there is no coherence at all. You feel like someone grabbed a scene out of a “Bourne” movie and shook it up even more.
Any momentum in “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” trips over the clunky love story that carries no emotional impact, wanders off in the convoluted plot, or gets lost in Kenneth Branagh’s silly Russian accent. If you’re a diehard fan of the earlier films, like “The Hunt for Red October” or “Patriot Games,” or a huge Tom Clancy fanatic, then maybe you’ll be interested in this movie, though it does neither of those justice. It’s too bad, because you see potential here, especially in Pine, but there simply isn’t anything to recommend this.