Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is the sort of spy movie that features two attractive, young actors meant to get audiences into the theater and two older, established actors meant to give the scenario at play its gravitas. Jack Ryan is played by Chris Pine, best known for his Captain Kirk in the Star Trek reboot. We never get enough of a quiet moment for Pine to communicate who Ryan really is. The closest we get is a scene in which he meets with his handler in Moscow, Harper (Kevin Costner). Ryan’s just survived an attempt on his life, he’s being followed, and he’s shaken. Pine is good, but one of Costner’s talents is that he automatically carries an audience’s goodwill into any movie. It’s surprising when he becomes dull so quickly.
Luckily, Shadow Recruit boasts Shakespearian heavyweight Kenneth Branagh. As Cherevin, the Russian baddie with a plan to collapse the United States, however, he fails to feel intimidating or scary. That’s two “howevers” in the first two paragraphs. That’s never a good sign. Instead, the two older actors feel like they’re just collecting paychecks, which is strange considering Branagh directed the movie.
Chris Pine and Keira Knightley, as Ryan’s girlfriend Cathy, exude the energy their elders lack. Pine himself is an excellent mimic. You can see him channel the other actors who’ve played Ryan before him – Alec Baldwin, who launched the character from book to film in The Hunt for Red October, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck. Pine adopts Ford’s jaded tics and habits during the action, but plays his cover identity as a Wall Street compliance officer more like Baldwin and Affleck. When Ryan pretends to be drunk, Pine even infuses him with some William Shatner. It’s the wrong franchise, but I’m sure you can imagine it works anyway. At some point, a director’s going to realize Pine has talent that exceeds his leading man looks and give him something more challenging.
Cathy is the sort of thankless, supporting role in which Knightley excels. We’ve seen her in so many breathy, period roles (Pirates of the Caribbean, Anna Karenina) that it’s difficult to remember she plays modern parts with a great deal of expression and exuberance. That’s the biggest problem. When Ryan and Cherevin are sitting opposite each other at dinner, each knowing who the other is, we shouldn’t feel as if Cathy – accidentally roped into a dangerous situation – commands the room.
The reasons most see a spy movie are for the tense spycraft, jigsaw plot mechanics, and exciting action. As for spycraft, Shadow Recruit has all of one scene – Ryan breaks into a secure building the exact same way you’ve seen in a dozen other spy movies and every other Hawaii Five-O episode.
The plot itself concerns Cherevin’s attempts to create a terror attack on U.S. soil and dump trillions of investments in the aftermath, crashing America’s economy. Rather than dealing with any real details as to how this works, Harper keeps on telling Ryan that it’s just too complicated for him to understand, so could Ryan deal with it instead? Nevermind that this means an entire spy agency is risking war on a lowly analyst’s unconfirmed hunch.
There are three action setpieces. The first is a brawl in a bathroom that is a nearly exact replica of the prologue in Casino Royale. The second and third are both car chases that lack any sense of clarity. At one point, a villain you believe has been ditched suddenly reappears in the back of a van, trying to wire a bomb. How’d he get back inside the speeding vehicle? By the power of bad editing. (Come to think of it, that would be a great power for a superhero.) If this film made anything clear, it’s that Branagh cannot direct a car chase.
Pine and Knightley both deserve another chance at these characters, but with a better script and a new director. Shadow Recruit wants to be one of Daniel Craig’s Bond films or a Matt Damon Bourne movie, but those two franchises repeatedly took storytelling risks to be successful. Shadow Recruit shies away from risk, doesn’t trust its characters with a plot, and trips over its own action. Worst of all, as the film’s established anchors, Costner and Branagh just feel like they’re running lines until the studio comes to its senses and hires Gary Oldman.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is rated PG-13 for violence and brief language.