Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is the fifth big-screen adventure of the all-American superspy invented by Tom Clancy, the second one that imagines Jack as a young man, and the first whose story isn’t taken directly from one of Clancy’s novels. This reboot was intended for a Christmas release but got pushed back after Martin Scorsese completed The Wolf of Wall Street on time. Coming out now, this deluxe spy thriller works well as a bit of popcorn counterprogramming to the Oscar contenders.
The film begins with Jack (Chris Pine) as a brilliant economics grad student who enlists in the Marines after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Wounded in Afghanistan, Jack meets two important people after being sent home. One is Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), the medical student who teaches him to walk again and winds up as his fiancée. The other is Navy Cmdr. Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who recruits him into the CIA as a financial analyst tracking the money of America’s enemies. In the present day, Jack gets his first taste of action when some unusual business transactions by Russian oligarch Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) tip him off to an imminent terrorist plot.
Branagh is OK as the bad guy, but he’s much more impressive as the director here. In fact, if this Shakespeare guy is now going to be making big, intelligent blockbuster action-thrillers regularly, I think I could live with that. He doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to convey a sense of place, but Branagh’s movie has an equally good feel for its scenes in Moscow, New York, and Dearborn, Mich. Considering that much of the film was actually shot in Britain, that’s quite an achievement. He’s also good with the action, not neglecting to pay attention to the quieter bits with Jack passing info among his fellow agents (Gemma Chan and Lenn Kudrjawizki) with balletic precision. Though he makes hash out of the climactic car chase, Branagh does much better with a series of quick cuts when Jack’s helicopter is hit by a rocket over Afghanistan, as well as a fluid fight scene when Jack is attacked by his own assigned bodyguard (Nonso Anozie) shortly after landing in Moscow.
This last bit is boosted considerably by Pine, who shows both the sheer muscular force required of Jack to overpower his assailant and the revulsion he feels at killing someone. You can see Pine’s inner emotions easily on his face, and while this sort of emotional transparency isn’t a quality you’d ordinarily want in a spy, it does make sense for the Jack Ryan in this movie, a desk guy who’s thrust unwillingly and without preparation into the role of an operative. The actor’s lightness lends snap to a scene midway through when Jack acts like a drunken asshat in a Moscow restaurant, deliberately insulting both Cathy and Cherevin so that they’ll dismiss him from the dinner table and give him an excuse to hack Cherevin’s computer.
The terror plot isn’t much to write home about. Far more interesting stuff crops up in Jack’s domestic life, as Cathy eventually figures out that her fiancé is not an investment banker and Harper quickly decides (over Jack’s strenuous objections) to use her as an active, willing distraction for the womanizing Cherevin. Whether it’s her spiffy American accent, the present-day setting that relieves her of the need to wear her usual crinolines, or the fact that Cathy actually gets to do things in the spy plot, Knightley seems energized here. The scenes between Cathy and Jack mine some tasty marital drama out of the old setup of the woman discovering that her man is a spy.
The late Clancy signed off on rebooting Jack Ryan once before in 2004’s The Sum of All Fears, with much less effective results than here. An intriguing piece on Grantland recently argued that this character is meant to be stuck in perpetual middle age. I think this might be true about such hypercompetent heroes — do we really want a movie about a 22-year-old James Bond training at an academy somewhere? As good as Pine is here, he seems like too lively and loose-limbed an actor to make a Jack Ryan for the long haul. Yet it would be ungenerous to deny the pulpy pleasures of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a thriller with enough craftsmanship and energy to make it worth savoring before disposing of it.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Starring Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, and Kenneth Branagh. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Adam Cozad and David Koepp. Rated PG-13.