Review: ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ Plays It Safe

'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit'

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit | Kenneth Branagh | January 17, 2014

How many times can you possibly reinvent the wheel – or, in this case, Jack Ryan? Since 1990, there have been five Jack Ryan movies (inclusive) and four Jack Ryans (again, inclusive). Each (not counting this latest) has done well, both at the box office and in terms of reviews – apart from the 2002 reboot The Sum of All Fears, which has the lowest rating of all the films on Rotten Tomatoes. So why the need for yet another reboot, especially after the lackluster Sum of All Fears (lackluster in regards to the box office earnings (compared, at least, to the rampant success of the prior three films) and the critics’ reviews)? Well, Paramount and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura had it in the pipeline since 2009 and they were hankering for Chris Pine to be the next actor to fill Ryan’s shoes, but because of Pine’s Star Trek commitments, the film had to be pushed back until 2012, which provided more than enough time to rewrite the script and eventually bring on Kenneth Branagh as the director (and eventual villain). And why not reboot (yet again) a noteworthy early ’90s franchise with Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford?

All the production details and filmic canon out of the way, the chief concern here is the film itself, and to say the least, it fares well. Perhaps taking a leaf out of J.J. Abrams and the Star Trek reboot’s book, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit goes back to Jack’s (Chris Pine) roots as a PhD student (of economics) and uses a major disaster (9/11, in this film’s case) to propel his story forward. Ryan is prompted to sign up with the Marines, suffers a back injury while rescuing his fellow passengers after their helicopter is shot down over a part of Afghanistan, meets his future girlfriend/fiancée Cathy Muller (Keira Knightly) in rehab at Walter Reed, and is recruited to join the CIA by an impressed Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner). And to take another leaf out of Trek‘s book, that’s all in the pre-title sequence. The film continues onward at a steady pace, catching up with Jack, who’s maintaining his CIA cover as a financial analyst on Wall Street, but he discovers something amiss with the financial records of Viktor Cherevin’s (Kenneth Branagh) company and after a covert hand-off meeting, he’s sent over to Russia to investigate further, which is when things start to really hit the fan for him and he finds himself out of his element as he uncovers Cherevin’s plan to sink the US economy.

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As a modernized Cold War espionage film with a definite ’80s feel, Jack Ryan accomplishes what it needs to accomplish. It clearly sets up the good guys (Ryan, Harper, the CIA, etc.) and the bad guys (Cherevin mostly), but with a tinge of gray. Take Cherevin: He’s telegraphed as the baddie within his first wordless minutes, but the audience gets a decent idea of his motive and reasoning – enough for some and maybe not enough for others. The action sequences aren’t as over-the-top as audiences have come to expect from modern action flicks, which serves as a good reminder of why we could do with more action films with fewer gratuitous explosions. The locations, while not incredibly exotic, fit the film (then again, Cold War spy novels and films were never big on exoticism), as does the score from Patrick Doyle, a frequent Branagh collaborator.

Shadow Recruit is, however, not without its flaws, the two biggest being the action sequences and the location title cards. If anything, the four main action sequences in the film are chaotic and choppy. The helicopter crash is a blur, the hotel fight scene leans on the coherent side but has its choppy moments (Also, what is it with recent spy movies and bathroom fight scenes? Casino Royale had one, one of the Bourne movies had one … Is it just a thing now?), and the two chase sequences in Moscow and Manhattan do also lean on the coherent side but the editing is too frenetic (if that’s possible), making both seem like a mildly coherent jumble. The camera doesn’t linger quite long enough to up the suspense, even if there is some nail-biting towards the end of the film. As for the location titles, they are painfully unnecessary. The first two appear in the first minutes of the film, which showcases the Thames and the London Eye from above and Jack at the London School Economics alongside the requisite title cards – London and London School of Economics. Audiences don’t need to be spoon-fed the names of the locations if they can infer or get a feel for the location(s) based on landmarks (the Eye, the Onion domes and Cyrillic, Lower Manhattan, etc.).

Those flaws aside, the cast plays through the motions with a touch of emotional detachment from the audience, hitting their marks, but not fully connecting. That’s not to say that it’s a bad cast – it’s a good cast, but there’s little to no connection, as it’s assured who will live and who will die because of the genre’s conventions. Branagh’s directing is decent at best, and I’m pleased that the film was sufficiently lacking in Dutch angles (but I may have spotted a sly one). I’ll give points, though, to a touch of Bond-esque wit, Keira Knightley’s nearly flawless East Coast American accent (maybe a hint of neutrality, though) and fortitude throughout the film, the casting of the recognizable Colm Feore (RevolutionThorThe Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Nonso Anozie (Game of ThronesEnder’s Game), and the inclusion of a competent female team member (Amy Chang, played by Gemma Chan). But, like most espionage movies that come to mind – Bond and not Bond – it doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, which may or may not be an adequate marker when it comes to judging a film’s success, especially when said film is entrenched in the genre.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit proves to be a decent-enough reboot that plays it safe with a good cast and coherent that checks off the necessary marks for an action film and a Cold War espionage film, even if it does dredge up an old international political rivalry or two.

Rating: 7.0 out of 10