Don’t listen to anyone who complains that Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is unoriginal, formulaic, and implausible. It is, of course, all those things, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from going to see it. This movie is a great deal of fun, not merely because director Kenneth Branagh has the guts to utilize most of the best spy thriller conventions, but also because he does so without having to condescend to the audience. It also employs a decent cast, an appropriately-written screenplay, and editor Martin Walsh, who clearly understands that pacing is vital when creating suspense and that not every scene necessitates lightning-quick music video cuts. I’m not at all being critical when I saw that the film is intentionally designed to be a crowd-pleaser, something that gives us license to set rational thought aside and simply enjoy what we’re looking at.
The Jack Ryan character, as we all know by now, was the protagonist of several novels by the late Tom Clancy, four of which were adapted for the big screen. Shadow Recruit is the first Jack Ryan story not directly inspired by one of Clancy novels; Adam Cozad and David Koepp have instead crafted an original screenplay. They even supply him with a new origin story, beginning in 2001 with him earning his economics doctorate in London. The 9/11 attacks motivate him to suspend his college studies, return to the U.S., and enlist in the military. The story then flashes forward to 2003, at which point he’s a marine recovering from a serious back injury, the result of his helicopter getting shot down over Afghanistan.
Cast as Ryan for this new film is Chris Pine, the fourth actor to assume the role following successful portrayals by Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October), Harrison Ford (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger), and Ben Affleck (The Sum of All Fears). It’s pointless to offer opinions on which actor is better suited to play the character, or on how well Pine captures the essence of the character as originally conceived by Clancy. The best approach is to take only this new film into consideration. Given the limited requirements set by the story – nay, by the entire genre – Pine plays his part competently and magnetically. Yes, Ryan engages in shootouts and hand-to-hand combat on a couple of occasions, and he participates in several impossibly choreographed stunt sequences, but at no point was he developed as the testosterone-pumped tough guy, and he doesn’t talk in lazy witticisms or comical puns.
During his recovery in 2003, Ryan is approached by an enigmatic CIA operative named William Harper (Kevin Costner), who was impressed by his unfinished dissertation and offers him an analyst position in the CIA, which he accepts. We now flash forward ten years, at which point Ryan leads a double life as a big-shot Wall Street executive. His girlfriend is physician Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), who ten years earlier helped nurse him back to health at the rehab center. Ryan has been duty bound to not reveal his CIA position to anyone, not even Cathy, although he could tell her if only she would agree to marry him. But she has been hesitant to accept his proposals, ironically because of his persistent secretiveness. She suspects infidelity, when in fact he’s merely doing his job.
He quite unexpectedly gets promoted to a field agent when he uncovers a meticulous plot to create global chaos by paralyzing the American economy. He’s sent to Moscow to track down the mastermind, Russian businessman Viktor Cherevin (Branagh), whose cirrhosis of the liver has been slowly but surely killing him. Peeling back the layers of his plan is, naturally, a job only Ryan is capable of; in every scene involving frantic computer searches, he’s the one that paces back and forth thinking hard before quickly coming up with logical explanations for what, why, and how certain things happen. Don’t bother questioning this, because you’re only defeating the purpose of watching this movie. Anyway, it doesn’t take long before Cathy pays her boyfriend a surprise visit. This means, of course, that she will end up taking part in the plan to stop Cherevin, and that Ryan will eventually have to rescue her.
I obviously have no way of knowing this, but it seemed to me that the entire cast had a great deal of fun making this movie. It’s especially apparent with Branagh, who’s Russian accent is just heightened enough to make him seem like a true spy-movie villain but not so heightened that it sounds just plain goofy. And only in something like this can the last details of the evil scheme be discovered during a car chase – which was, incidentally, a thoroughly satisfying way to have the final act play itself out. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit will never be considered high art, but then again, who made it a rule that every movie has to be emotionally, structurally, characteristically, or thematically complex? Sometimes, one of the greatest pleasures of going to the movies is allowing yourself to be entertained.
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