Just three short months after the death of author Tom Clancy, his iconic character Jack Ryan is reborn as a sort of Jason Bourne/James Bond hybrid in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a throwback espionage thriller that finds the Cold War turning frosty again thanks to a malevolent Russian oligarch who hatches a terror plot to crash the U.S. economy. Despite being released into theaters in January -- a month typically known as a multiplex dumping ground -- those in search of a little celluloid sustenance to get them through the winter may be in for a pleasant surprise here: While this satisfying origin story doesn’t exactly reinvent the spy film, it succeeds at holding us rapt thanks to both a cracking screenplay by David Koepp and newcomer Adam Cozad and some smart directing by multiple Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh (who also impresses as the highly quotable Russian villain).
We first meet Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) on that fateful September day back in 2001. Awoken from a peaceful sun nap on a college campus by the bustle of his fellow students, Ryan makes his way to a television set to see the World Trade Center on the verge of collapse. Flash forward three years to Afghanistan, where we now find Lieutenant Ryan serving his country on the front lines before nearly being killed in an RPG attack on a military helicopter. With the help of compassionate medical student Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), Ryan eventually gets back on his feet. When he does, U.S. Navy commander Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) is there to recruit him into the CIA.
Ten years later, Ryan is living with Muller, now his fiancee, and leading a clandestine double life as a CIA analyst on Wall Street. When he uncovers evidence of a conspiracy to destroy the U.S. economy, he is sent to Russia to investigate the records of nefarious businessman Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh). A study of Cherevin’s financial records has yielded some potentially disturbing discoveries, but it isn’t until Ryan arrives in Moscow that he realizes that the truth is more terrifying than he could ever imagine. He is subsequently deemed an active agent, but his investigation is complicated when his suspicious fiancee unexpectedly shows up in his hotel room. Now, with time running out before Cherevin’s diabolical plot is set into motion, Ryan must protect the person he loves most while preventing a disaster of historic proportions.
Having first appeared onscreen in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, Jack Ryan has become a familiar name to moviegoers with a taste for intrigue. He’s an astute character with a particular talent for thwarting apocalyptic plots, and Clancy’s unique skill for placing him in a historical perspective has ensured a successful leap from page to screen. But, as anyone familiar with Hollywood can tell you, every great hero needs an origin story, and here Koepp and Cozad do a commendable job of building on Clancy’s vivid mythology. Though detractors may complain that the writers are being too hasty in their attempt to portray the bulk of Ryan’s backstory even before the opening titles, their efficient approach manages to tell us quite a bit about Ryan and his inner conflicts while smartly working within the sturdy framework established by Clancy. Likewise, once the main plot gets underway, they remain focused enough to maintain that brisk pace without sacrificing any character work; their skill for efficient dialogue complements the action and suspense quite nicely.
As a director, Branagh appears harmoniously attuned to his writers’ strengths. Every shot serves a purpose -- even if it doesn’t appear clear to us in the moment -- and thanks to a smart bit of misdirection shortly after Ryan arrives in Moscow, Branagh effectively establishes an air of uncertainty that reverberates through the entire film. Together with Pine, the Oscar-nominated director uses Ryan’s initial uncertainty to form the foundation of an assured hero whose willingness to test his own limits will ultimately guide him to greatness. In his role as Cherevin, the filmmaker draws on the strength of the adroit script as well, quite obviously relishing his villainous role with poetic threats, icy glares, and a penchant for menacing with energy-efficient lightbulbs. While Costner primarily appears to offer some levity early on, it’s fun to watch him get in on the action as the story moves along, and even Knightley manages to become an effective junior agent when the opportunity arises. It may not be the best or most original spy film ever made, but in terms of maintaining tradition, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit most certainly gets the job done, and chances are it would have made the author who created the character proud.
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- Released: 2014
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: Just three short months after the death of author Tom Clancy, his iconic character Jack Ryan is reborn as a sort of Jason Bourne/James Bond hybrid in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a throwback espionage thriller that finds the Cold War turning frosty again tha… (more)