As the titular CIA analyst in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Chris Pine has the slightly nervous look of a guy in over his head. Whether that anxiety belongs to the rookie field agent character or the actor playing him is up for debate. Considering the way that Pine made himself comfortable in William Shatner’s yellow pyjamas in the new Star Trek films, though, it seems right to give him the benefit of the doubt. He doesn’t seem to be an actor who scares easily.
It’s also not as if the four previous films adapted from the works of the late novelist Tom Clancy cast a particularly long shadow. You’d have to go all the way back to 1990’s The Hunt For Red October, starring a then-ascendant Alec Baldwin, to find a Jack Ryan film that really holds up. And even then, that had more to do with the presence of Sean Connery as a steely Soviet submarine captain. The Hunt for Red October ended on a harmonious note of perestroika, with the Russian and American heroes literally sailing off together into the sunset. Almost 25 years later, Jack: Ryan Shadow Recruit tries its best to reignite the Cold War, with tepid results.
Inspired to sign up for the Navy by the events of September 11 and injured in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan, Pine’s Ryan is clandestinely recruited during his convalescence by covert-ops guru Harper (Kevin Costner), who asks him to be the Agency’s inside man on Wall Street. At first, the posting involves riding the subway, wearing nice suits and telling little white lies to his fiancé (Keira Knightley, practising her Yankee diction in a truly thankless role), but when Ryan gets wind of a complicated scheme to cripple the global economy, he’s dispatched to frigid Moscow.
From there, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit settles into a familiar espionage-flick groove, borrowing from both its predecessors and also the Bond franchise (Ryan’s shell-shocked reaction to his first kill as an operative blatantly recalls Daniel Craig’s ambivalence at the beginning of Casino Royale. Certainly, Kenneth Branagh’s performance as the villainous, cirrhosis-stricken businessman Viktor Cherevin, who gradually emerges as Ryan’s main foil, belongs in a 007 adventure – or The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, since his outrageously put-on Russian accent makes him sound like he’s looking for Moose and Squirrel.
But at least Branagh’s acting has some flair, which is more than can be said for his direction, which is mostly just functional. Forget the glory days of Henry V and Hamlet: even Thor, with its canted angles and slightly chintzy sense of grandeur, was a better showcase for this former wunderkind’s directing talents. The biggest problem, however, is the screenplay by Adam Cozad and David Koepp, which does an end run around Clancy’s Jack Ryan mythology and winds up going nowhere fast. The appeal of the Jack Ryan character, at least on the page, was that he was always the smartest guy in the room. In Shadow Recruit, that doesn’t seem to be much of an accomplishment, because the movie around him is so dumb.