[9 June 2014]
In a pop-cultural climate dominated by shady anti-heroes, the character of Jack Ryan is a throwback. While the anti-heroes have backstories that smooth out some of their edges, Ryan’s origin, explored in franchise reboot Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, is devoid of any edge whatsoever. He’s as straight-arrow as it gets, without even a whiff of temptation toward any kind of dark side.
When the film begins, Ryan (Chris Pine) is a student at the London School of Economics. The events of 9/11 cause him to put schoolwork aside so that he can serve his country. He requests a position that actually sees combat, even though his education could vault him into a cushy desk spot out of the line of fire. His helicopter goes down, and yet he still manages to pull two of his men to safety—despite, as a hospital worker exclaims, having a broken back.
Oh, and the reason he’s so injured in the first place is because he got up from his helicopter seat to help an inexperienced private who was having trouble with his seatbelt. Forget Boy Scout; Jack Ryan is an Eagle Scout to the extreme.
All of this happens in what is basically the prologue to the actual events of the film, which show how the squeaky-clean Ryan, following his injury, is recruited into the CIA, first as a data analyst at a financial firm in New York City, and then as an agent on his first field assignment to avert an act of financial terrorism in Russia. As Ryan progresses up the ranks of the CIA, though, the story doesn’t get any more nuanced. Ryan is always the most observant, most competent, most morally upstanding guy in the room. The Americans are the good guys; the Russians are the villains. It is, like its airport-novel origins, pretty boilerplate.
For something so formulaic, though, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is at least well done. Director Kenneth Branagh borrows from the best of recent thrillers. He throws in a Bourne-style fight scene here, a Mission:Impossible break-in-and-heist-sequence there, and some Zero Dark Thirty-like data analysis, along with a dash of his own classic, theatrical flourishes. (Branagh takes on the role of Russian baddie Viktor Cherevin, a cold-blooded killer who still makes time to talk about the novels of Mikhail Lermontov.)
With each of these sequences, Branagh changes his filmmaking style to match. The Bourne-like fistfight also borrows its director’s affinity for the shaky, handheld camera aesthetic. The longer heist scene has more fluid camera movements and quick cuts to ratchet up the tension. Throughout, Branagh makes everything sparkle: fluorescent lights of a city, reflections on smooth surfaces of modern architecture, blinking lights of a computer message. The elements of the story may be familiar, but everything looks shiny and new.
Unfortunately, Branagh can’t make everything about Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit feel fresh. Ryan must keep his involvement with the CIA a secret from his girlfriend, Cathy (Keira Knightley), who thinks his secrecy means he’s covering up an affair. It’s a subplot that could’ve been lifted from any kind of spy story ever written, complete with Cathy’s transformation from suspicious girlfriend to damsel in distress.
Branagh has more success developing the relationship between Ryan and his CIA handler, Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner). Costner, now settled in to character acting, projects just the right balance between patient mentor and world-weary agent. There’s just enough depth to him to wonder if maybe he has more of a nefarious motive before you realize that, no, the movie isn’t going to throw any sort of curveballs.
The straight-ahead plot and well worn character types are more of a disappointment considering that this is the first Jack Ryan movie that isn’t based on a specific Tom Clancy novel. Instead, Branagh and his screenwriters, Adam Cozad and David Koepp, were able to borrow liberally from Jack Ryan lore without being beholden to any particular series of events. They were able to go in any direction they chose, and, like Ryan himself, pitched something straight down the middle, more aligned to classic thrillers, rather than try to create any new innovations in the genre.
Not relying on a Clancy novel, whatever the movie’s successes are, they can be credited squarely to Branagh. And he’s not shy about taking credit, either, in a few of the featurettes included on the Blu-ray. Even the titles of the featurettes sound self-aggrandizing: “Sir Kenneth Branagh: The Tsar of Shadow Recruit,” or “Jack Ryan: The Smartest Guy in the Room.” Mostly, these featurettes have talking heads that remind you how great Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is without providing much additional insight. (Even the deleted scenes are short and don’t affect how the movie plays much.) Better is the commentary, where Branagh and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura actually get into their influences and the thought process behind creative decisions.
Not that Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit requires any additional naval-gazing. Its pleasure lies in its simplicity—something to put on when you’re in the mood for a well done, uncomplicated, no-frills spy story.