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Tested, Found Wanting

by Laura Leon on January 23, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Directed by Kenneth Branagh


The fifth edition of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan franchise, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, is meant to be the start of something new. It’s a combination origin story-reboot (because writers in Hollywood can’t seem to dig into fresh material), this time introducing us to the new face of the series, the likable Chris Pine as the title character. Early on, Jack is a student at the London School of Economics when 9/11 occurs; next thing we know, he’s on a chopper over Afghanistan while trying to convey to HQ the importance of some traffic patterns (and, no, I’m not talking roundabouts) he’s reported on. Three times. Cut to disaster: the hospital, and ultimately Walter Reed, where Jack’s painful recovery is noted by his fetching med student intern, Cathy (Keira Knightley) as well as Naval Commander Harper (Kevin Costner), a CIA recruiter always on the lookout for fresh talent.

Pine and Knightley in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Go forward a few years, and Jack is working in international investment banking, but secretly helping the CIA locate suspicious monetary transactions that could be linked to terrorism. In this capacity, he unearths potentially world-threatening exchanges involving a Russian firm headed by the lethally silky Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh). Harper orders Jack to hit the road to audit the books—something that even the least financially oriented of filmgoers will realize ain’t gonna happen. Once in Moscow, things get ugly, really fast, and Jack, who has preferred his desk jockey role to anything more, well, Bourne-like, is forced to brush up on his survival skills. Cathy, suspicious that her now-fiancé is screwing around, turns up; this raises the danger factor as Cherevin adroitly plays financial cat-and-mouse with the Americans.

The movie is fairly engaging, as January movies go, and there are moments of wry humor and gripping suspense. However, much of what drives the plot is, well, boring—flow charts, thumb drives, little squiggles raining down on computer screens while nameless analysts in headsets shout out non sequiturs meant to help Jack put together the puzzle pieces. An early attack scene shows Jack understandably shaken in its aftermath, and underscores that he’s an analyst, not a killing machine, but when a CIA handler reminds him that he’s a marine, and that’s why he has survived, we are uncomfortably reminded of that fact and the one about how Ryan doesn’t seem to endeared to that military training. Part of the problem is that, however amiable, Pine doesn’t have that cutting edge, that je ne sais quoi that makes it believable to us that, when pushed, he’ll fight back. Hard.

Branagh does a decent job as director, giving the film some of the same feeling that made Thor such a treat, but he’s on shakier ground integrating a secondary plot about an impending, and connected, domestic terrorist attack to the overall narrative. He clearly enjoys himself playing Cherevin as a sort of Baltic Snidely Whiplash, and he also uses the Russian backdrop in such a way as to make that country, its cities and forests, almost as much a compelling character as his villain. Knightley looks ravishing in a LBD, and believably doctorish in her scrubs, but has little to do other than furrow her brow and, at least once, identify a vital clue that Jack and his computer geeks almost missed. Costner comes off the best, as his commander has dry humor but, more important, what Pine doesn’t: the gravitas needed to be believable as a veteran fighting unseen enemies for the safety of our society.