Action Film Review

Deep Cover Film Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

January 17, 2014Ben MK

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From Russia with love

By Ben Mk

Jack Ryan has been on a nearly fourteen-year hiatus since his last cinematic outing, The Sum of All Fears. During that time, the James Bonds and Jason Bournes of the world have stepped up to fill the void in spy vs. spy action. But Jack's back in Kenneth Branagh's new film, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, which has its sniper scope firmly fixed on reintroducing audiences to Tom Clancy's world of spycraft. Its mission: to reaffirm Jack Ryan as a man of action and a hero relevant not just in today's new world order, but also among the ranks of those spies that have come both before and after him.

Think of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit as being to its titular character what 2006's Casino Royale was to James Bond — Jack Ryan: Year One, if you will — rebooting the series while paying homage to its Cold War roots. From the film's opening moments, it's clear that it doesn't take place in the same continuity as any of the previous films. Re-imagining Ryan's origins as an economics PhD candidate who turns to joining the US marines after 9/11, his journey to becoming a highly-skilled CIA analyst is efficiently dispatched with in a terse prologue, before the film moves on to the plot proper. In Shadow Recruit, Ryan (Chris Pine) is activated for field operations for the first time in his CIA career, after being sent to Moscow to investigate a shady, billionaire business tycoon named Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, serving double duty as both actor and director) and to unravel a Russian plot to collapse the US economy (bearing tinges of a similar plotline from Live Free or Die Hard) and send the nation reeling into the depths of another Great Depression — by means of stock market manipulation and, of course, a terrorist attack. Accompanied by his his fiancée, Cathy (Kiera Knightley), and his CIA mentor and handler, Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), what Ryan faces in Moscow will test both his training and his mettle, especially when the mission turns personal and the fight is taken to home soil.

Although Harrison Ford has become synonymous with the character, Pine is actually the fourth actor to take on the role, inheriting the mantle from Ben Affleck. Ford himself inherited the role from Alec Baldwin, who was Jack Ryan for the character's 1990 screen debut, The Hunt for Red October. As Captain James Tiberius Kirk in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek revamp, playing the role of an action hero who's still learning the ropes should be old hat by now for Pine; but his character in Shadow Recruit has only a few traits in common with his portrayal of the iconic starship captain. Though both are heroes forged in the fire of battle and guided by their unflinching desire to protect those closest to them, Ryan is the epitome of a boy scout, compared to the recklessness of Kirk. Both get the job done — often by the skin of their teeth — but Ryan's arc sticks more closely to the archetype of the traditional hero.

That very same archetype also casts him in somewhat of a bland light, with nothing especially distinctive to set him apart from Bond or Bourne, even though the film means to reclaim the espionage-action-thriller throne from those other franchises. Branagh is convincing as a brooding, Russian antagonist, but his character doesn't exude the Threatcon Delta gravitas of a Bond villain; and the storyline is fairly straightforward, with none of the elaborate complexity and conspiracy theories that audiences have become accustomed to from the Bourne films. What the film does have going for it is a firmer footing in reality. The strong suit of the Jack Ryan stories has always been their ability to play on our collective fears and paranoia — and in today's climate of rising economic uncertainty, living under the ever-present threat of another terrorist attack, Shadow Recruit is no different.

Director Kenneth Branagh, once known only for tackling projects in the realm of classic literature, seems to have been bitten by the action bug lately. Returning to the genre, after getting his feet wet on Marvel's Thor, he once again proves himself capable of helming a blockbuster action tentpole — even if he's still a little green behind the ears. Early on in the film, as Harper is watching Ryan wince his way through physiotherapy, in the wake of suffering debilitating injuries in Afghanistan, he's asked if he thinks Ryan will ever walk again and replies, "Only if he decides he has somewhere to go." Shadow Recruit does have somewhere to go, and Branagh knows how to get it there — but he speeds to its endgame at a pace that tends to diminish the impact of its events, pausing the action mostly to show just how far out of his depth Ryan is on his first mission. The quick pacing does benefit the film by handing it a constant momentum that, in turn, generates the tension necessary to sustain an action thriller; but its brevity in comparison to the far-reaching scope of the events within makes it feel like but a snippet of a larger story.

The Bottom Line

Coinciding with the heightened public awareness and concern over the NSA's activities, it's either very good or very bad timing for a film about international espionage and terrorism. Despite a plot that's slightly more anemic than what we've become used to for the genre, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a fairly solid and brutally efficient, if not somewhat generic, espionage action-thriller. It's no Bond or Bourne film, and it isn't meant to be. Its success lies in creating a modern incarnation of Jack Ryan — one born out of the new world order and ready to confront its challenges head-on — while holding true to his origins. And in that respect, it's mission accomplished. [★★★½]

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