Sandwiched between 2011’s Thor and the upcoming live-action adaption of Disney’s Cinderella in 2015, Kenneth Branagh‘s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is another mainstream and unusual choice for the British thespian, whose name is typically associated with directing Shakespearean plays and more “sophisticated” fare. Although not based on a novel by Tom Clancy, Shadow Recruit serves as a prequel, reboot, and standalone adventure that re-introduces viewers to the crafty CIA agent made popular on page and screen. Portrayed by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck in previous incarnations, Chris Pine joins the roster as the latest leading man to fill the popular action hero’s shoes.
The film traces Ryan’s career from humble beginnings as a student at the London School of Economics, where he catches his first glimpse of the devastation wrought on September 11th. Eighteen months and a PhD later, Ryan is a Second Lieutenant of the U.S. Marine Corps., serving in Afghanistan. After sustaining a spinal injury when his helicopter is shot down, it appears the wannabe-soldier is grounded for good. Following physical therapy, Ryan regains the use of his legs, albeit painfully, and his heroic efforts to save the other soldiers in his detail have attracted the attention of CIA official Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who recruits the young economics expert to the Agency.
A decade later, Ryan is dating his former physical therapist, Cathy Muller (Kiera Knightley), and works undercover at a stock brokerage on Wall Street, where he is well placed to analyze financial transactions that might suggest funding for terrorist activity. When Ryan discovers a series of concealed accounts linked to Russian criminal Viktor Cherevin, played with a hammy accent by the film’s director, Kenneth Branagh, he jets to Moscow under the pretext of a routine audit and discovers a plot to coordinate the sale of American assets with a decimating terrorist attack on the United States. The stakes: a second Great Depression. It’s up to Ryan to find out when and where the attack will happen and prevent a global financial meltdown.
Released under the Tom Clancy and Jack Ryan banner, Shadow Recruit is a clear attempt to capitalize on the brand power of an old dog and teach him new tricks. With similarly generic espionage action-thrillers littered throughout the year’s release calendar, the movie offers few innovations. It’s not daring or ambitious, but it delivers the goods at a brisker pace than many other films of its ilk, never beleaguering the audience with excessive spectacle or vapid down time. Among other refreshments are the action sequences, which punctuate the film, rather than consume lengthy portions of the story. It’s also rare that the hero actually succeeds with relative ease, without going through the motions of being thwarted at every turn. Also, Keira Knightley makes a rare appearance outside of a period piece. Small mercies.
Although Pine doesn’t breathe as much fresh air into the rebooted Ryan as he does Capt. James Kirk in the new Star Trek franchise, he still manages a likeable and watchable character. However, I would be remiss if I failed to mention his budding comedy chops and the relative ease with which he integrates humor into his performance. On the opposite side of the moral spectrum, the Russian fiend, Cherevin, remains consistently quiet and composed, but I believe that deep down, Branagh had quite a bit of fun playing the bad guy.
Bonus features include deleted and extended scenes; Jack Ryan: The Smartest Guy in the Room; Sir Kenneth Branagh: The Tsar of Shadow Recruit – a look at how the British actor pulled double duty as the film’s director and villain; Jack Ryan: A Thinking Man of Action and Old Enemies Return – an educational feature about the geopolitics and history of U.S./Russian relations, including Cold War tensions as inspiration for Tom Clancy’s novels and their subsequent film adaptations. ~Daniel Horowitz