This is a spy movie where everyone knows what everyone else is doing, but still, they all go through motions as if they don't.
"I don't like you very much, doctor. You're sick, you're a sadist." Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) peers up from the floor at his tormenter, Cathy (Keira Knightley). She is not a doctor, as she corrects her patient, but a third year med student currently completing her physical therapy training and, it so happens, providing Jack with precisely the tough love he needs. A marine with a broken back suffered during a helicopter crash in Afghanistan, Jack's current position on the floor at Walter Reed, collapsed off his crutch, has him bargaining with Cathy for a Percocet.
It's a scene you might expect in any Jack Ryan story, a scene that sets up a low point from which Jack Ryan must recover. The recovery here, in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, not written by Tom Clancy, has to do with Jack Ryan's relationship to 9/11. This version of Jack Ryan has arrived at his position on the floor looking up at Cathy, the med student who will become an ophthalmic surgeon and also his wife, because, while attending the London School of Economics, he's inspired by 9/11 to sign up for the marines and become something of an amateur analyst of terrorist activities, sending reports to his higher-ups even as he volunteers to go on hazardous chopper missions like the one that breaks his back.
All this leads to Jack's shadowy recruitment by the CIA, in the oh so odious form of William Harper (Kevin Costner), introduced as he watches Jack on the floor at Walter Reed. Harper's on an upper level looking down, just the back of his head in frame, as he pronounces he doesn't yet want to meet this young man who so interests him. When, a few scenes later, he does approach Jack -- who's recovered enough to be running in the rain with a hood over his head -- with the idea he join the CIA, it's after Abu Zubayda and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Ghraib. And so Jack has the chance to declare his moral position, which is to say, anti-bad-CIA.
And so he goes on to become the primary embodiment of good-CIA. You've always known that Jack is something of a boy scout (Harper goes so far as to commend exactly this aspect of his character, or at least his look). Here that super-straightness helps him negotiate -- or avoid -- the complexities of a post-9/11 spyworld as if he's still Clancy's WWII veteran. At once naïve and brilliant, surprised and skilled, this reluctant warrior is the perfect one for what ends up being a bit of a paean to the Cold War, a universe that's now exponentially teched-out, to be sure, but still full of overkilled Russian accents, spectacular vehicle chases, and brutal fisticuffs.
When the movie reopens in today's world, Jack's a covert financial analyst, installed by the CIA at a Wall Street bank (helmed by Colm Feore) to look for transactions that might indicate terrorist scheming. Of course he finds some, indicated distinctly by flashing "corrupt" markers on his computer monitor. The plot that's been hatched by Russian villain Viktor Cherevin (played broadly by director Kenneth Branagh) threatens the global financial structure, with hopes of empowering China over the US and then, if everything goes just right, Russia takes over the world. Viktor's gains approval from a dour minister (Mikhail Baryshnikov) in a secretive woodsy setting, and then proceeds apace, despite and because of it being equal parts brazen, silly, and preposterous.
This actually puts it in line with all the action in Shadow Recruit, a secrety spy movie where everyone knows what everyone else is doing, but still, they all go through motions as if they don't, supposedly to fool opponents who, well, know what everyone else is doing. It's goofy in an old-fashioned, this-might-be-fun way, but also just goofy in a this-makes-your-eyes-roll way.
And so: Jack arrives in Moscow to face down Viktor, whereupon he's picked up by a burly minion, Embee (Nonso Anozie), obviously in place to test Jack's Bond-like survival skills. Entertainingly epic, their battle makes use of every possible element in Jack's luxurious hotel room, from glass table to flower vase to bidet, and suggests at least some of the actual labor that goes into such encounters, as Jack's face turns red and sweaty, his upset at having to enact such violence against another human being quite visible.
Such visibility is short-lived, however. For most of what follows, feats of derring-do are accomplished with astonishing ease and speed, including the recruitment of Cathy into the whole shebang. When she shows up in Moscow as a surprise for Jack, she's worried that his secretive behavior -- unbelievably badly planned secretive behavior, by the way -- is a function of something mundane, like, you know, he's having an affair. Relieved to find this isn't the case and much happier to think he's running around Moscow with a gun and fighting FSB thugs, Cathy insists that she play spy too, distracting the too easily distracted Viktor so Jack can hack into the bad guys' system and get all the information he needs (but really, already knows). A standard enough set piece in a movie of this sort, the sequence involves endless cutting from Cathy drinking wine to Jack pounding his keyboard to Harper aiming his sniper's rifle to assorted seconds driving and monitoring and announcing impending time limits.
Leading directly to an action bit, where Cathy holds up under torture and Jack propels himself through a jeep window, this perfectly timed, perfectly preposterous sequence crystalizes what's all that's right and wrong about Shadow Recruit. Gorgeous and outrageous, senseless and self-aware, too slick and too dumb, the movie pretty much defines "post-9/11".