Have you seen the trailers and TV spots for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit? The ones that make it seem like Kevin Costner’s CIA agent might really be a double agent? Or that Keira Knightly might be someone more than just Mrs. Jack Ryan? Well don’t buy into the “Trust No One” ad machine, for Shadow Recruit, the fifth movie to feature Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character, is as straightforward as espionage thrillers come. In fact, everyone is who they say are from the start. No twists. No turns. The only real surprise is that the film, starring Chris Pine as the titular spy, isn’t based on one of Clancy’s novels like its predecessors (The Hunt For Red October, Clear and Present Danger) and is rather an original story reboot. And not just any reboot, it’s an origin story with clear intensions of setting up a 007-like franchise, but unlike the similarly minded Casino Royale, Shadow Recruit is a big letdown.
The film starts in 2001, with business student Jack Ryan watching the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and deciding he wants to fight for his country and join the military. Flash forward a couple of months and Jack is aboard a helicopter in the Afghani Mountains that malfunctions, rendering him almost paralyzed. Flash forward a couple months and Jack is in rehab learning how to walk again under the supervision of Cathy (Keira Knightly). They naturally fall in love. Flash forward even more and Jack is getting visits from Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), a CIA operative with intensions of recruiting Jack and placing him on Wall Street as an undercover CIA agent. Flash forward a full decade and Jack, now married to Cathy and a financial analyst, is uncovering a modern day Cold War scheme headed by the nefarious Viktor Cheverin (director Kenneth Branagh).
The entire paragraph above explains a heck of a lot about Jack’s upbringing and the film’s greatest problem is it rips through all of these events in a 10-minute prologue before settling into the main narrative of Ryan vs. Cheverin. The issue is that being spoon-fed all this information about who Jack, Cathy, and Thomas are strips away any attempt at making them real characters. Instead, they become stereotypes – Jack the wounded vet turned CIA hero, Cathy the loveable girlfriend who you know will get herself involved into the main conflict somehow, and Thomas the quietly vague, authoritative presence behind-the-scenes. The prologue sucks the life out of the movie, getting the film off to a tacky, uninteresting start. I can think of about at least a half a dozen ways the film could’ve incorporated all this backstory into the main plot more subtly and in ways that would’ve built the characters through action, similar to James Bond and Jason Bourne.
Chris Pine proves himself capable as both a wicked smart analyst and a makeshift agent who can hold his own in hand-to-hand combat, but the screenplay never makes it remotely believable that someone like Jack could go from checking computers on a daily basis to kicking major ass. Pine, whose talents are executed much better in the Star Trek franchise, might also just be too much of a pretty boy for the role, losing the ruggedness of the Ryan character that Harrison Ford nailed in his two Ryan moves. Knightly, with an American accent that takes time to settle in, plays the beautiful girl friend well and the plot gives her some importance during the film’s most exciting scene, a dinner between Ryan, Cathy, and Cheverin where the couple must dupe Cheverin so that Ryan can steal computer files from his office. Here, director Branagh stages the dinner and simultaneous break-in with stylish energy and a keen eye for escalating suspense. It’s the movies only edge-of-your-seat bit. Costner is largely forgettable and Branagh, hamming it up as a Russian businessman, is too theatrical to take seriously.
What you’re left with is a movie that badly wants to be the next great spy movie but lacks any of the dangerous energy or memorable characters of the Bond and Bourne films. Branagh does his best to increase the tension behind the camera, and he utilizes several spinning camera movements that twist more excitingly than anything in the screenplay, but he also goes over-board on the shaky-cam during certain big moments. A tighter, more character based script would’ve made the film land with greater impact but, as is, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit gets 2014 off to an underwhelming start.
Review by Zack Sharf