Tightly-plotted, intense, and intelligent, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a solid, engaging thriller that earns its place alongside the previous film adaptations of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series in terms of quality while also retooling and freshening up the concept and the character for newer audiences.
For those familiar with the character of Jack Ryan from the previous films — The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), Clear and Present Danger (1994), The Sum of All Fears (2002) — or from Clancy’s books, some of the most important elements of Jack’s backstory are covered in the first twenty minutes of the film, albeit altered to bring the Cold War-era character more in line with recent history. While working on his Ph.D. in economics in London, young Jack Ryan (Chris Pine, Star Trek Into Darkness) watches the events of September 11, 2001 unfold on television and feels compelled to put his studies on hold in order to serve his country by joining the Marines.
Two years later, while serving in Afghanistan, a horrific helicopter crash leaves Jack with spinal injuries that require a long and painful rehabilitation. While learning how to walk again, he meets his soon-to-be fiancee Cathy (Keira Knightley) and gets noticed by Harper (Kevin Costner), the head of a CIA counter-terrorism unit. Once Jack’s recovery is complete, Harper recruits him as an analyst and places him within a financial firm on Wall Street, working undercover to identify and help stop clandestine funding for terrorist groups and operations.
Flash-forward to the present. In the midst of a tense political standoff between the U.S. and Russia, Jack notices a pattern of transactions between his firm and a powerful Russian partner, Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) that could set up the U.S. economy for catastrophic ruin if timed to coincide with a terrorist attack or disaster. Despite the fact that he’s not a field agent, Harper orders him to Moscow to personally investigate the accounts and transactions in question. This brings Jack into direct contact with the volatile and dangerous Cherevin, and that contact is complicated further by the arrival of Cathy, who’s still unaware of the true nature of Jack’s work and has become suspicious of his secretive behavior.
So with Harper at his back and his relationship with Cathy as well as the economic life of his country at risk, the financial analyst-turned-field agent springs into action, and the chase to stop Cherevin and his plot is on.
Director Kenneth Branagh might at first seem like an odd choice to helm a geopolitical spy thriller, as he is perhaps most well known for his often-star-studded film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s plays. But the acclaimed Irish actor/director is, in fact, no stranger to crafting suspense and intrigue; just look back at Sleuth, his 2007 remake of the 70’s classic starring Sir Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine (Caine actually stars in Branagh’s remake, as well), or his 1991 sleeper hit Dead Again. He’s also proven capable of handling big-budget, epic scale productions, from his own mammoth 4-hour adaptation of Hamlet to the first Thor film. Put all that together and you have someone who’s an ideal candidate for crafting a strong re-launching point for a franchise that once banked on delivering suspense and excitement on a grand scale, with stories that spanned the globe and drew from the tensions and intrigues found in today’s current events and headlines.
As he did with Thor, Branagh demonstrates both understanding and reverence for the genre he’s working within, and the character he’s putting at the center of his story. He provides Jack opportunities to be both the brilliant and insightful analyst and the action hero in equal measure, and that’s especially important working with Chris Pine, as too much gunplay and fisticuffs and not enough problem solving might have audiences thinking they’re watching Pine take another on-screen turn as Captain Kirk. Years ago, Harrison Ford defined the role of Jack Ryan in part because producer Mace Neufeld and director Phillip Noyce saw Jack as a very far cry from Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Branagh helps Pine distance himself from his other iconic character in the same way, and in effect helps Pine bring to life a very believable “thinking man’s” hero.
It’s worth mentioning that the ensemble around Pine, filled as it is with Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe winners like Costner, Knightley, and Branagh himself, also turns in fine work without overshadowing the lead or stealing the show. Knightley, in particular, is fun to watch, if for no other reason than to hear her deliver her lines in an American accent, something she hasn’t been called upon to do in quite some time. Both Costner and Branagh keep their performances understated and grounded, and thus their characters, each quietly intimidating in their own way, provide interesting foils to the young and excitable Jack.
Branagh’s pacing of the film is also very efficient. At 105 minutes, the film feels like it races by, but it never feels rushed — each story beat is given its opportunity to breathe, develop, and lead to the next, and nothing feels wasted or superfluous in the execution. If there is any criticism at all to be made of Branagh’s craftsmanship here, it’s that there’s nothing truly innovative here. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit won’t redefine or add anything of substance to the genre when all is said and done, as perhaps Paul Greengrass has done with his Bourne films, or Martin Campbell did with his successful reboot and revival of the Bond franchise in 2006’s Casino Royale, if you want to point to that and say that that’s what makes it just a good spy film and not a great one, it’s a fair point.
But what we get doesn’t demean or diminish the genre, either, and it’s worth your time and dollars at the box office if you’re a fan of these types of films or of the cast. Watch it, enjoy it, and then debate over who’s been the best Jack Ryan in films. Chris Pine’s not bad.
Most will still agree it was Ford.
No one will ever say it was Ben Affleck.
Score: 3.5 out of 5
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Starring Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightley. Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Running Time: 105 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and intense action, and brief strong language.