The key factor to CIA analyst Jack Ryan’s appeal is his vulnerability, fear and inexperience. Whether played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and now, Chris Pine, the character always rises to the occasion but usually with hesitation that comes from being a wounded war veteran and a self described “analyst without field experience.” Ryan is depicted here as a CIA recruit but, on the clock or not, has always been a sort of stuffed shirt Every Man, whose patriotism and clear sense of wrong and right motivates him to accomplish his mission.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan adventure novels have been previously adapted into the movies The Hunt for Red October, with a terrific breakout turn by Baldwin as the ambitious but earnestly in-over-his-head Ryan. Ford took over the role in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger; his performance was as solid as the films themselves, though casting the former Indiana Jones as Ryan made the character’s heroics and triumph over adversity seem like a given. Affleck’s take on Ryan in The Sum of All Fears wasn’t bad, though the film itself was stronger than his portrayal.
Pine is already known worldwide as the star of J.J. Abram’s Star Trek movies. The actor could have merely coasted on audience goodwill and familiarity with his icon as a movie hero. The nicest surprise in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is how Pine shows us Ryan, not as a super hero wrapped in an American flag, but a sweet, scared young man whose courage comes from the terror that no one else will take action. Pine’s take on the role is as good as Baldwin’s, whose Red October remains the standard for Clancy films.
We first meet Ryan as a student, shaken by 9/11, then as a wounded war veteran. This being a prequel/reboot/origin story for the character, we’re also introduced to Mrs. Ryan, played by a luminously appealing Keira Knightley, who has more to do with this role than Anne Archer ever did. After being recruited for a top secret mission by a CIA agent (played by Kevin Costner), Ryan is off to Russia. Initially on an investigative assignment, Ryan finds that his life and country are in grave danger.
Kenneth Branagh directs and co-stars as the film’s key villain, a wealthy, ailing mad man named Cherevin. Branagh’s performance is pitch perfect but I hoped for more of the directorial flamboyancy that mark his best films. Likewise, composer Patrick Doyle, whose Needful Things soundtrack is one of the great undiscovered film scores, creates music that is suitable without being memorable.
I enjoyed seeing Mikhail Baryshnikov, scary in an unbilled role as Cherevin’s superior. Costner is suitably intense as Ryan’s mentor, though I missed seeing James Earl Jones as Ryan’s eventual boss. Cherevin’s lair has the same dazzling, improbably glossy sheen as Branagh’s adaption of Sleuth, or the layout of any Apple store.
Branagh seems to have studied Paul Greengrass’ Jason Bourne thrillers, as a few sequences are muted of their excitement, due to a camera that refuses to hold still. The best scenes are at the mid-point, with a surprising, brutal fight scene that occurs in a bathroom and the initial Ryan/Cherevin encounter is deliciously written and acted.
There’s also a suspenseful set piece involving the downloading of a computer file that is simply a larger scale version of the same scene from Clear and Present Danger. While the screenplay is involving, it lacks the dense plotting and rich techno-speak from Clancy’s novels.
Clancy, who died last year, famously disliked the movies made from his novels and would have hated the many contrived coincidences found here. While not a direct hit like Red October, Pine’s appealing turn and some gripping scenes make Shadow Recruit worthy of the Clancy film cannon.
Score: *** (1-5 Star Scale)