The novelist Tom Clancy died in 2013, but his most famous character, CIA analyst Jack Ryan, gets a new, non-Clancy backstory in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. It’s a pretty dull one. The movie itself isn’t dull. It’s moderately stylish, moderately suspenseful, fun in patches. It hits its marks. But the setup lacks urgency, i.e., any reason for being apart from Hollywood’s relentless quest for the almighty franchise — a word once used (and better suited) to Burger Kings and Shell stations. Jack Ryan is lucrative work-for-hire by people selling themselves short.
The young Jack Ryan is played by Chris Pine, who’s also the young Captain Kirk in the “reboot” of the Star Trek franchise for the same studio, Paramount. There must be a statue of him on the lot. Pine is a good actor. He’s handsome but not bland — his gaze is intense and he seethes credibly. In Jack Ryan, he looks suitably stricken when he suddenly has to fight off a large assassin — Ryan until then being under the impression he’s an analyst, not a warrior. But there’s nothing funky or idiosyncratic about Pine. The best movie heroes have a smidge (sometimes a bucket) of weirdness, whereas Pine is just a guy. He could star in two more franchises and leave no residue of himself behind.
This is another “origin” story. When the movie opens, Ryan gathers with his London School of Economics classmates in front of TV screens carrying live shots of the burning World Trade Center. In the next scene, he’s in the Marines and flying over Afghanistan. A missile hits the plane, and as he’s rolled, a mottle of bloody flesh, into an emergency room, a fellow marine tells the doctor that Ryan personally dragged two survivors out of the plane. The doctor says, “With a broken back???” The message is: This guy isn’t just an economics wonk. He brings it.
He brings it in rehab, too. Some men might not walk after an injury like Ryan’s, but when you watch him grimace and fight to stay upright at Walter Reed, you know he’ll be running marathons in no time. So does third-year med student Keira Knightley, who can’t keep from flashing her fanged grin. Then Kevin Costner as “Thomas Harper” shows up and offers Ryan a CIA job, working undercover in a Wall Street firm. Ryan’s assignment: to be on the lookout for economic terrorism. Ten years later, he spots the financial missile headed our way. The bad guys? Russkis!
They’re baaack and we’ve missed them — missed their gravity and sadness and the cornball poetry of their mother tongue. This villain, Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), isn’t just an agent of a totalitarian state. He wants revenge on the U.S. Clancy was a big right-winger, but Jack Ryan has been re-jiggered ever so slightly (damn liberals!) to suggest that we’re paying the price for actions in Afghanistan some decades back. And we’re still screwing up. Harper is quick to assure Ryan that it wasn’t his division doing “rendition” and dunking people in vats at Bahgram. He’s on defense.
The movie plods along until Ryan takes off for Moscow and there’s an attempt on his life — a good, brutal gun and pummeling scene that mixes jangly close-ups with long shots and eerie silences. Branagh directed, and I imagine he can get a piece of any franchise he wants at this point. He has style but not enough to distract you. He’s a company guy. I’m happy for his fortune — he has earned it — but it’s depressing to think back on his directing debut in the late eighties, Shakespeare’s Henry V, and remember when his name stood for work that was classy and populist. Of course, Henry V was a remake. And the title character did appear in two other Shakespeare plays. But I’m confident that Shakespeare never referred to “the Henry franchise.”
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit has a long and clever third act that begins in a fancy Moscow restaurant, ends in the Hudson River, and features an excellent espionage centerpiece featuring a modernist office building, glass elevators, and a frantic psychodrama improvised by Pine and Knightley to distract the villain while I.D. cards are swiped and clockwork schemes set in motion. Even then there are all kinds of fuzzy plot points and disjunctions. Finance yields to fisticuffs and car chases. A bomb is set for 5:00 minutes. You can bet things go to the last second.
I liked Branagh’s hammy solemnity, Costner’s dry underplaying, and Knightley’s fangs. Pine is … fine. The espionage genre is reliably absorbing. But Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is not a movie that sends audiences home winded, laughing, eager to think back over great sequences. It’s a movie that sends you home thinking,“Has the franchise been successfully rebooted? I can hear the 12-year-olds now: “I like the Bourne franchise better.” “No way — the last reboot sucked.” “This is a tentpole.” “No way it’s a tentpole, it’s a viable franchise.” “F--- you, it’s a tentpole.” “Your mother sucks tentpoles … ”