The late Tom Clancy’s most beloved creation finds another new face as the gutsy American operative Jack Ryan bursts back onto our screens with a lively new demeanor. Following the success of high-octane actioners from Bond to Bourne, it’s no surprise that Hollywood has decided to reignite another spy franchise, but in a post-9/11 world with the threat now coming from a very different place, can Ryan, a veteran of Cold War antics, still deliver the goods?
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit finds America’s favourite CIA operative energetically reborn as the fresh-faced Chris Pine, tackling his very first mission: a global economic crisis with hints of terrorism and those dastardly Russians at the head of it all once again. What ensues is a hugely enjoyable, yet oddly paced thriller with one foot pointed towards intense action and the other grounded firmly in Ryan’s roots in espionage. This often involves a muddled dance between hasty gun fights and intelligent bickering that forms an understandable and (to some extent) believable plot, but also one built on clichés. The two sides, although related, never seem to truly mix and more weight is placed understandably on the action side of things, ultimately creating a film that thinks it’s smarter than it actually is.
Under the finely tuned direction of Kenneth Branagh, Pine finds a new and different level for his incarnation of Ryan. He’s spritely, yet still tied to the gravity of his actions providing a healthy dose of reality every now and then in amongst the spy-game silliness that dominates the story. Pine himself handles the role with enthusiasm but at times it almost feels like the Jack Ryan we’re seeing is, by Hollywood standards, nothing particularly special. Tiny sections of dialogue look to inject some noted brains to Pine’s natural brawn but this is particularly forced and never really sticks. What remains often feels like nothing more than a Bond clone, just one who asks a few more questions before firing his gun.
Director Branagh installs himself as the film’s lead villain and suffers a similar fate. As the trademark Russian of the piece, there’s plenty of cold looks and violent outbursts to be seen but again, nothing extraordinary or vengeful about his character; he exists solely as a form of standardised evil and does very little to be detestable. The only refrain from such monotony comes from of an on-form Keira Knightley (sporting a surprisingly tight American accent) as Ryan’s punchy fiancée, becoming a likable damsel who actually gets involved with the gun-toting festivities- a welcome change to thriller-logic.
Whereas the muted leads don’t cause any major problems, what does is the film’s undeniably dated morals. Even with the Cold War dead and buried, Shadow Recruit still holds tightly to America’s aging paranoia towards Russia, gifting key focus to something most audiences feel little-to-nothing about. The film tries to flog the old Jack Ryan-formula nearly 25 years after its inception and unsurprisingly stumbles. Without a threat that’s logical, there’s no reason for the audience to get behind Ryan as the hero, we only do so because we’re told to.
Shadow Recruit is by no means a failure: it’s an entertaining and often rather thrilling ride with plenty of clever turns, but one that’s very basic in its approach. With the talent involved and a fresher script, this could’ve been an exciting new beginning for the Jack Ryan character, but instead what exists is simply a fun but hollow installment in a dying franchise that does little wrong, but covers no new ground either.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), directed by Kenneth Branagh, is released in the UK by Paramount Pictures, Certificate 12A.