D: Kenneth Branagh / 105m
Cast: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh, Lenn Kudrjawizki, Alec Utgoff, Peter Andersson, Elena Velikanova, Nonso Anozie, Seth Ayott, Colm Feore, Gemma Chan
With franchise reboots seemingly the order of the day in Hollywood at the moment, we shouldn’t be too surprised to find Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst dusted down and given a new lease of life courtesy of parent company Paramount. Twelve years on from the frankly underwhelming The Sum of All Fears, we find our hero not only younger but given the dubious benefit of an origin story. It’s a slightly too comfortable move by Paramount, and while you can understand they might want to make a few more Jack Ryan movies in the future, this is quite a soft, predictable movie for a “first” outing.
We first meet Ryan at college in England on the day of 9/11. The terrible events of that day prompt him to enlist in the Marines and we move on to events in Afghanistan that see Ryan badly injured and needing intense physical therapy so that he can walk again. Here he meets two people who will be instrumental in getting him back on his feet: junior doctor Cathy Muller (Knightley), and shadowy spook Thomas Harper (Costner). Fast forward ten more years and Ryan is working on Wall Street as an undercover analyst working for Harper and looking for financial dealings and transactions that might indicate terrorist funding. He is living with Cathy who knows nothing of his double life. When Ryan discovers Russian accounts that are being hidden from view, he travels to Moscow to investigate. Surviving an attempt on his life, Ryan meets businessman Viktor Cheverin (Branagh) and discovers a plot to destabilise the US economy. To make matters more complicated, there’s a terrorist attack being planned, and Ryan’s girlfriend turns up unexpectedly in Moscow.
While the plotting and characterisations in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit are fairly simple and straightforward, there’s a disconnect between the high-tech gadgetry and versatility of the modern communications devices on display, against the feel and visual styling that Branagh brings to the fore throughout. This is very much an Eighties spy thriller, with many of the Cold War frills that were prevalent then, and there’s a large debt owed to The Fourth Protocol (1987). The script tries its best to avoid the usual clichés but remains a fairly sterile affair, devoid of any real tension and saddled with the kind of arch-villainy better suited to a Bond movie. (Indeed, Branagh’s character and performance would have looked completely at home during Pierce Brosnan’s tenure.) What elements the movie does pilfer from recent years gives it more of a Jason Bourne feel but without the angst. When Cathy turns up in Moscow there’s a sense that hers and Ryan’s relationship – given such a strong focus in the first third of the movie – is going to continue in the same vein, but the script relegates her to the necessary damsel in distress; and once she’s saved she’s removed from the movie altogether until the inevitable coda (but not before she’s conveniently validated Ryan’s double life, previously a plot point that drove their relationship).
With Cheverin’s financial machinations lacking the flair or excitement that can only be offset by a series of (thankfully) non-CGI action sequences, the movie plays out its showdowns and action beats proficiently enough without giving us anything new or different. (The last third, with its chases through Moscow and Manhattan, also seem to provide a potential cure for back pain: Ryan’s injuries from Afghanistan, still causing him problems today, are forgotten about as he’s thrown around a lot in vehicle collisions and found hanging out the back of a truck.) There’s a distinct lack of tension as well, and the short scene where Ryan determines both the location of the terrorist attack and the person who’ll carry it out, is laughably preposterous. Branagh juggles the various elements to good effect but thanks to the script’s holding back, he can’t quite make things as exciting as they should be.
Pine is okay as the newest Ryan on the block, his youth and inexperience played to good effect until he’s required to don the mantle of action hero. Knightley takes the generic girlfriend role and manages to make it interesting, though she’s hampered by the script’s reluctance to include her character as anything more than attractive window-dressing (it’ll be interesting to see if she returns for any sequels). As the equally generic villain, Branagh fares better as the patriot willing to sacrifice anything to humble the West, but it’s Costner, experiencing a bit of a career revival at the moment, who fares the best. He gives a quiet, unshowy performance that adds some much-needed gravitas to the proceedings, and he dominates each scene he appears in.
Rating: 7/10 – as a reboot, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit shows too much restraint on the action front, and has a plot that is too underwhelming for its own good (even if it does sound a credible threat); if there is a sequel it will need to take some bigger steps if it’s going to compete with the Bonds and the Bournes of this world.