IMDb Plot Summary: Jack Ryan, as a young covert CIA analyst, uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack.
This latest Jack Ryan entry is Hollywood’s fifth installment of the character in the last 24 years and third reboot of the franchise, with Chris Pine the fourth actor to take on the title role. The last entry, 2002’s The Sum of All Fears with Ben Affleck, was moderately successful if creatively indistinctive, and indeed 12 years later the only thing I remember from it was it had a cool explosion scene. None of these things make for good omens, and the very fact it’s taken 12 years for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit to make it to the big screen proves the latest example of Hollywood’s unwillingness to let things die without milking every last dime first.
Admittedly, Shadow Recruit was not very high on my radar until the first trailer hit, which piqued my interest and showed the character still had potential to succeed. Chris Pine is a fine choice to build a franchise around. It worked gangbusters in Star Trek, and though he has never proven to be a box office draw on his own yet, he’s done solid work over the years in fare such as Unstoppable and People Like Us. He’s a charming actor easy to like and root for, and whatever success Shadow Recruit has is largely due to him.Pine’s trend is unfortunately likely to continue, however, as Shadow Recruit drew lackluster business at the box office and fails to distinguish itself afresh.
The main problem is it remains stuck in the past and is forced to play a difficult game of catch-up. In the years since Hunt for Red October and the two Harrison Ford outings in the early 90s, and especially in the wake of Sum of All Fears, the Bourne, Mission: Impossible and James Bond franchises have redefined and to a certain extent perfected the modern spy thriller. Shadow Recruit tries to have its cake and eat it too without going through the efforts of a complete overhaul, a la Casino Royale, and suffers for it.
It stubbornly clings to the original character’s outdated Cold War tropes, which stopped being exciting plots for movies years ago, while director Kenneth Branagh shoots through a Bourne lite lens that impresses little. Branagh always seemed like an odd choice for spy reinvention, being how shooting action has never been his forte. He doesn’t have the slick chops to pull off the thrills or inventiveness someone like a Paul Greengrass or Brad Bird brings to the table, but he also regretfully doesn’t incorporate the fun antics that made Thor work, the film which probably landed him this one, and plays things safe down the middle.
Safe is perhaps the best word that encapsulates the current state of Jack Ryan. It mainly sticks with what has worked in the past and doesn’t mess with that tried and true formula. To a certain degree, I suppose there’s some comfort to be found in that, especially for fans of ‘80-90s action, and despite its many faults I never found myself ever actively disliking Shadow Recruit.
The plot is as ridiculous as expected, involving an act of financial terrorism that kind of makes sense but not really. There’s an over-the-top Russian villain with a ridiculous accent (really, is there any other kind?), played by Branagh doing double duty. Kevin Costner provides a nice supporting turn as Ryan’s mentor. These are all more or less things that you can roll with, but what cannot be fully overcome is how low the emotional stakes are.
The story suffers whenever it comes to dealing with Ryan’s personal life. It starts off with an interesting take of him as a wounded vet, but then jumps to present day and does little else outside of the obligatory patriotic flutters. Meanwhile, Keira Knightley is wasted as his fiancé in a relationship that leaves most of the romance and reason to care on the floor. Not exactly the strongest place to be starting from if you’re planning on launching a blockbuster franchise.
Like it’s 2002 predecessor, Shadow Recruit adds nothing new to the genre, but on the other hand it doesn’t embarrass itself, either. Jack Ryan spins a competent enough yarn to keep oneself occupied on a lazy afternoon, and once it’s over likely will be forgotten just as quickly. Whether or not Hollywood finally decides to forget about Ryan, too, remains to be seen.