Written by Adam Cozad and David Koepp
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
To say that Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit could be worse is both true and damning with the faintest of praise. This reboot of the famous character created by the late Tom Clancy is almost aggressively generic, an uninspired action thriller that aims to get only the most basic job done—reintroducing a character who is the Everymanniest Everyman there ever Everymanned—and does just that. Chris Pine is decent in the title role, but just about any actor his age could play the part with the same level of engagement and excitement.
After a prologue establishing Ryan’s patriotism (he enlists in the Marines after seeing news coverage of the 9/11 attacks while attending school in London) and the injury he gets while serving in Afghanistan, Ryan is recruited into the CIA by William Harper (Kevin Costner, ever the straight shooter), who admires his Boy Scout forthrightness. Ten years later, Ryan works covertly at a high-end Wall Street firm and sees a potential terroristic and economic disaster in the form of a shady Russian company headed by Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, who also directs). Ryan juggles this threat with a more personal one, as his longtime, in-the-dark girlfriend (Keira Knightley) becomes impossible to shake even as he travels to Moscow to figure out what Cheverin’s master plan is, in Russia and abroad.
The only surprise about Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is that it is patently unsurprising. Any wisp of a hint that there might be a serious third-act twist or turn dissipates quickly. Aside from a couple of attempts to mirror an early event in the film to a major one in the climax by writers Adam Cozad and David Koepp, this is essentially a rote procedural stretched out to feature length. Every obstacle Jack runs into is dealt with fairly handily, even those that seem well out of his depth, such as his first hand-to-hand encounter with a beefy bodyguard hired by Cherevin to kill. (In all honesty, after Ryan dispatches this baddie, any other fight scenes are even more lacking in tension, because no one else in the film poses a similar physical threat.) Arguably, a film that serves as the basis for a possible franchise can only offer so much suspense; we can safely assume, for example, that Jack Ryan himself will make it out alive. And considering the fact that the stakes for Shadow Recruit end up encompassing almost all of Western civilization, it’s highly doubtful that this film would end on a grim cliffhanger.
What is left is a by-the-numbers throwback that often doesn’t seem to be aware that it’s a throwback. The script is rooted in a Cold War-style conflict (there is even the inclusion of Russian agents who’ve lived in the United States for years under the pretenses of being a normal American family, which is the premise of the 80s-set drama The Americans) and yet, nothing about the threat feels particularly present or immediate. That Jack works on Wall Street is, of course, a vital part of the overall plot, but it feels like lip service to the very real financial problems being wrought upon the world by the people working on that street. There is a general vagueness to the characters and story, as if digging deeper into their motivations would simply be too much work for a big-budget blockbuster.
Pine, as mentioned above, is perfectly adequate as Jack Ryan, but even though neither new Star Trek film is flawless, he feels much more at home as the rakish and sometimes obnoxious Captain Kirk. Save for a couple of moments, Jack Ryan is a fairly milquetoast guy who doesn’t crack a joke or smile, or display much of a personality. After his first kill, Jack begins freaking out as a normal person would, his hands shaking as he comes down from the adrenaline rush. But any qualms he might have vanish quickly, and Pine clicks into average action-hero mode. Knightley and Branagh, playing American and Russian, respectively, are both equally as adequate as Pine, except the majority of their work appears to be maintaining an accurate accent to hide their native British tones. Costner, at least, is a bit more enjoyable, in part because his terseness fits his character well and affords him the opportunity to get a few laughs amidst the general malaise.
But Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is, the meager flashes of personality aside, just that: bland. There are worse films and far better ones. To be clear, that this film was originally slated to open on Christmas Day 2013, and has since been pushed back to mid-January, might seem like a cause for qualitative alarm. January is now thought of as the month when studios release their very worst films of any given year; Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is nowhere near this bad. It’s, at best, a mild distraction, but still not a very good film. It could have been terrible, but this much is true: every major player involved in this film can do, and has done, much better before.
— Josh Spiegel