It’s tough to tell if hardcore fans of Jack Ryan will be delighted or disgusted when it comes to Kenneth Branagh’s reboot of Tom Clancy’s beloved spy. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit has some decent moments or action and a solid lead in Chris Pine, but it’s far too inconsistent and formulaic to be a good film. The changes to Ryan’s backstory could be taken as some pleasant nods to the history of the character or could be seen as completely blasphemous. It’s almost as hard to figure out as Shadow Recruit’s overcomplicated plot and in the end all that’s left is a middle of the road political thriller.
After witnessing the 9/11 terrorist attacks on television while studying abroad in London, Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) joins the U.S. army and begins a tour in Afghanistan. After a helicopter he’s traveling in is shot down, he undergoes surgery for a broken back. After lengthy rehab, Ryan begins to walk again and is recruited by William Harper (Kevin Costner) and the CIA to help stop a plan to cripple the US economy by Russian businessman Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh).
It isn’t an entirely bad movie, but it seems like it wants to rush to its rather forgettable finale. Chris Pine is solid as the titular character, forgoing the cockiness he displays in films like Star Trek and This Means War for a performance that feels slightly more vulnerable and subdued. Pine plays up the inexperience of this Ryan, using his back injury and intelligence to give us an interesting and mostly worthwhile take on the character. There’s a sense that this guy is rough around the ages, never feeling invincible, yet still feeling comfortable with the responsibility of saving the United States of America.
The first two acts of the film are successful in introducing us to Ryan’s helicopter crash and back injury, as well as the first time Ryan has to kill a man in the field. The introduction of Kevin Costner’s William Harper and even Ryan’s love interest Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley) is done very well. Even though Knightley is demoted to a “damsel in distress” for a brief moment, both characters are worthwhile and contribute to the plot of the film.
Still, the film feels too much like “Diet James Bond”. It wants to be an intelligent political thriller, but it’s trying way too hard to mimic the look and feel of modern spy blockbusters. The film has some decently entertaining (yet sadly forgettable) set-pieces, but they are sparse and inserted between some exposition by Costner or villainous dialogue by Branagh.
Most of its goodwill is lost by the final act, which feels completely rushed and totally unsatisfying. The confusing and messy plot includes an intertwined economic crash and an attack on America isn’t as intelligent as it intends to be, and Branagh’s Cherevin never feels dangerous. The film is also missing any final standoff between Cherevin and Ryan. We’re ultimately left with a clichéd ticking time bomb finale that’s boring, too quickly resolved, and has been done countless times before in the exact same way. It’s predictable and lacking any sort of punch, and the final scene of the film is patriotically hilarious with a final shot that’s positively cringe inducing.
Branagh’s direction is also somewhat bewildering. He chooses to shoot much of the film in close-ups, likely in an unsuccessful attempt to give characters emotional depth in a film that’s lacking in action. There isn’t much scope or ambition to the film at all. Its attempts to feel intimate are eliminated by the film’s lack of any sort of emotion. Branagh seems like he feels obligated to dumb things down for audiences and it feels patronizing. Obvious location changes are displayed with text on screen, and Costner even uses a line of dialogue explaining to Ryan that he “doesn’t have his PhD”, meaning he wants him to dumb down his dialogue. His work never feels confident and ends up being inconsistent.
While Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit has some decent moments in its first two acts, it ends up becoming another tedious and clichéd political thriller. As it progresses, however, it becomes borderline awful, even if Chris Pine is a solid lead. It’s middle of the road Hollywood fare, neither particularly good nor bad, so really what was the point?