Counting this film, the character of Jack Ryan has appeared on cinema screens five times. He has been played by actors as good as Harrison Ford and as bad as Ben Affleck. The character was created by Tom Clancy, who featured him in a number of novels. None of that matters, because Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a reboot that ignores essentially all of that, while also establishing a new name in the “Who is the worst actor to play Jack Ryan?” debate.
All of the previous continuity is ignored here, as is much of the source material. This film, unlike the earlier four, is an original story, not based on one of Clancy’s novels. That explains why it feels as generic as it does. It was written by film people for what they think audience want out of a popcorn movie. The result is not terrible, thankfully, but simply generic and unmemorable. Save for one extended sequence in the middle, there’s little worth seeing or talking about when it comes to Jack Ryan.
Our lead is Jack Ryan (Chris Pine), who was a promising student of economics before seeing 9/11, joining the marines, and sustaining a life-threatening injury. His rehab doctor was a medical student, Cathy (Keira Knightley), someone he eventually winds up dating. He’s approached during rehab by a CIA Agent named William Harper (Kevin Costner) who offers him a job that still allows him to serve his country, even though he is still unable to properly walk. He’s to join a company and spy, relaying accounts that seem out of the ordinary to his superiors. Nobody can know, not even Cathy.
This eventually sees Jack head to Moscow after he sees some things that don’t add up. A businessman named Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, also the film’s director) is hiding things from the Americans. What he encounters is much more serious. The Russians are planning to send America into a second Great Depression, and are going to use a terrorist attack combined with great knowledge of the stock market in order to do it. Now, Jack is the only person who is able to stop them, because he’s the title character.
There’s a great sequence in Moscow which involves Jack having to break into Viktor’s office while Cathy keeps Viktor busy at the dinner table. It’s filled with suspense and some great conversation. Apart from this, however, the rest of the film is bland and generic — so much so that it becomes a struggle to remember earlier parts of the film while you’re still watching it. Seen one movie of this ilk and you’ve seen most of them. It’s not often boring but it’s completely hollow.
Kenneth Branagh seems an odd choice to direct this type of film. He’s someone who seems more at home with Shakespeare than with Tom Clancy. He seems an even odder choice to play the main villain, who’s Russian. In the acting department, Branagh’s actually the one who stands out the most. He makes for a suave villain whose patriotism matches up well with Jack Ryan’s. His Russian accent also sounded very good, although I’m sure someone with more familiarity would notice some flaws that the average ears won’t.
Branagh has an eye for detail and composition. That’s one of his strong suits as a director. He uses Moscow and its skyline to a great degree. He also makes the terrorist plot surprisingly believable, at least in the moment. I’m sure most of it wouldn’t be possible in real life but while you’re watching that doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, he’s not as good at putting together action scenes. The car chases — plural — are as dull as they come and the couple of one-on-one fights are chopped up so much that you get the feeling the actors involved had little idea how to do a fist fight.
In fact, one has to wonder why Chris Pine was picked at all. I know it kind of worked with Star Trek, but this isn’t the type of person around whom you want to build a franchise. He’s so emotionless and he also shows here that he doesn’t make for a believable action star. Given that this is a reboot — complete with different back story — it’s likely Paramount wants this to become a new franchise. I’d suggest a re-cast.
I wonder if there was studio interference with this film. It’s not incompetent and it doesn’t feel as if it’s missing anything, but what does the “Shadow Recruit” of the title have to do with anything? Is it just there to sound cool? It has nothing to do with anything in the movie, as far as I could tell. This might be a minor gripe but I am genuinely puzzled by the film’s title. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, huh? I’m actually surprised they had the subtitle at all. Isn’t it trendy to just have the title of the film the main character’s name?
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is not a terrible or even bad movie. It’s just mostly dull and forgettable. It’s the type of film you can’t get worked up about at all, because that type of investment isn’t possible. It’s empty entertainment and nothing more. One sequence of suspense, a few laughs — both intentional and unintentional — a bland lead, great supporting work and attention to detail from Branagh, and a title that doesn’t really make sense, but sounds kind of cool. It’s better than it had to be but not good enough to justify seeing.