As espionage thrillers go, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit skillfully marshals all the familiar elements. That’s the damn problem. Despite a timely spy plot with Russian baddies trying to crash the U.S. economy via the Internet and terrorist attack, lots of glam globetrotting through Moscow, London and New York, and a studly, digital-savvy hero in Chris Pine, the movie feels deballed by its allegiance to formula. Are we not entertained? Sure we are. Class-act director Kenneth Branagh, happily slumming again as he did with Thor, wants us to share in his amusement. But his movie never really busts loose. It’s not built that way.
Who’s to blame? In Hollywood-speak, to boldly go where no movie has gone before is fucked-up box-office thinking. Reboots are where the money is. If you want to jump-start a moribund franchise, cast it young and hot and go with an origin story. Look what Pine did as Captain Kirk in the revived Star Trek series.
Pine is at it again in Shadow Recruit, playing the CIA analyst featured in 13 bestsellers, by the late Tom Clancy, and four hit movies. Three stars have already had a crack at Jack: Alec Baldwin in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, Harrison Ford in 1992’s Patriot Games and 1994’s Clear and Present Danger, and Ben Affleck in 2002’s The Sum of All Fears. But 12 years is a long time between gigs. Is there any juice left for an actor to squeeze out of the character? Pine does his damnedest, finding the conflicted core of a brainiac who feels out of his element when the call comes for action.
Screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp veer away from Clancy’s novels to fill in the blanks on Jack and give the character a modern backstory. We meet our college-age hero at the London School of Economics, where he lazes under a tree with his books until news of 9/11 rouses his patriotic fervor. He nearly loses his leg after a heroic stand in Afghanistan, but American medical student Cathy (Keira Knightley, trying very hard not to sound British) helps him get his energy up. Other things, too.
Enter Kevin Costner, nicely underplaying the can-do brio of Harper, the CIA agent who recruits Jack as a covert operative on Wall Street. That’s where Jack discovers the dastardly scheme of Russian mastermind Viktor Cherevin (Branagh himself) to achieve world domination for Russia. Branagh, looking and sounding like the thin-lipped, malicious Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, has a ball. Viktor’s dinner-table come-on to Cathy, exposing his weaknesses for vodka, vanity and women, has an elegant bite that seems to come from a more intriguing movie.
Don’t worry. It’s not for long. When Jack and Cathy quarrel, Harper cuts them dead: “This is geopolitics, not couples therapy.” Branagh the director makes sure that Jack Ryan, the character and the movie, soon gets back to hardass business. Jack’s fight with an assassin in a Moscow hotel room has the punch of a James Bond film. And an extended sequence of Jack trying to get in and out of Viktor’s fortress without detection could be right out of the Mission: Impossible franchise.
That’s the disturbing point. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit has no personality of its own. It’s a product constructed out of spare parts and assembled with computerized precision. It’s hard to care when Jack turns operational and becomes a CIA robocop. The movie feels untouched by human hands.