Tom Clancy, the legendary author of some of the best-selling political espionage thrillers of all time, died last year, leaving behind a legacy that had stretched far beyond paperbacks in to the realm of cinema and video games. Filmgoers are likely to be familiar with his most famous creation, CIA analyst Jack Ryan. Previously portrayed by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck over the course of four films that went from great to okay, the character has now been given a complete reboot in the form of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit from director Kenneth Branagh.
Not based on any of Clancy’s novels, Shadow Recruit seeks to give Ryan an origin, beginning with his decision to drop out of school and join the army when the United States were attacked on 9/11, and then chronicling how he becomes an active CIA agent following an incident that leaves him incapacitated. Ryan’s position as an analyst gets him wrapped up in some Russian financial/practical terrorist plot that absolutely isn’t among the film’s strengths.
Kenneth Branagh, best known as a writer-director of several well regarded ’90s Shakespeare adaptations, seems to be taking a more action-orientated direction at this point in his career, his previous film being 2011’s Thor, where he quite successfully treated the Marvel god a bit like Shakespeare. That film had a very distinct look due to the heavy use of canted framing and cinematography. All of those are missing here, and so is all visual flair. Jack Ryan is a very bland film, it’s shot, staged and edited in boringly pedestrian manner. That’s not to say that it needs to be avant-garde, just that there should be at least some attempt at inventive filmmaking choices.
That might not be so much of a problem if this philosophy didn’t extend beyond the stylistic choices and into the writing. It’s standard-issue post-9/11 spy thriller with an old-school Russian villain, played by Branagh himself, thrown in for good measure. The script loosely strings together everything you’d expect from a film of this ilk, but it does it rather poorly. Things just don’t lead naturally from one another, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and attempts at clever foreshadowing/callbacks don’t pan out as well as the filmmakers would’ve wanted; a third act callback to a painting of Napoleon is idiotically baffling for instance, resulting in a dumbfounded chuckle rather than an “a-ha” moment, as intended.
The casting fares better. Chris Pine is a fine choice for the role of Ryan, bringing a warmth and charm to the character which makes him exceedingly relatable. His Ryan isn’t actually a balls-to-the-wall action hero but rather more human than you might expect these days. The film’s best moments are when those qualities shine through, notably in his reaction to his first kill (which the film dwells on really well), his determination to get back on his feet and in most of his interactions with his girlfriend, played by Keira Knightley.
Knightley does well with what she’s given, playing well with Pine and in a duo of tense encounters with Branagh’s villain. Her character isn’t any master stroke but she isn’t entirely comprised of cliches and isn’t just a damsel in distress. Knightley does all of this with a really great American accent which is only noticeable due to years of hearing her use her native one.
Branagh’s decision to cast himself as the villain pays off for the most part. He gives off enough menace and malice as he snarls in a par-for-the-course Russian accent. His backstory is kind of interesting but it doesn’t really come together as smoothly as it should. It’s encapsulating of the film: slightly above generic.
None of the supporting players are of much note, outside of Kevin Costner‘s CIA handler character, who is exceedingly uninteresting and does little else than spin tales of patriotism, and an uncredited appearance by Russian ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.
What it all comes down to is that you’ll remember only a handful of things about this movie: The chemistry between Chris Pine and Keira Knightly which keeps things mildly interesting, the scene where Kenneth Branagh threatens Knightley with a light bulb (it’s much more terrifying than it sounds) and how poorly plotted it all was, without actually recalling much of what it was about.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a generic, poorly plotted espionage thriller that occasionally comes to life but leaves little behind. Some good chemistry between Pine and Knightley, along with some menacing moments from Brannagh just barely manage to rescue the film from the complete anonymity the filmmaking threatens to plunge it into. Not the dedication Tom Clancy deserved.
The Good: The chemistry between Pine and Knightley, plus Ryan’s generally non-violent hero.
The Bad: Costner’s bland patriot spiel and the nonsensical & forgettable plotting.
The Ugly: The shallow focus cinematography.
Overall Score: 5.4/10