Review: 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit' Brings Bland Familiarity to Series
by Jeremy Kirk
January 17, 2014
There is a wealth of story in the collection of Tom Clancy novels featuring his number one lead, Jack Ryan. Some of film’s best espionage stories star the CIA analyst-turned-field-agent. Yet, the output these novels have given the film world has just as many misses as hits, and those misses are getting wider off the mark. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is Hollywood’s latest attempt at turning the character into a franchise name, and its tame, formulaic, and dulled results mark the weakest Jack Ryan adventure the character has seen to date. At least it’s loud and fast, which may fool some into thinking there’s some substance. Read on!
Oh, yeah. The substance here is that this is an origin story for Ryan, the fourth actor to take on the part being any new franchise's go-to guy, Chris Pine. Screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp have managed to cobble together all the little factoids and background information on the fictional character. Their version of the character’s beginnings in international espionage breezes by like scenes from a “previously on” TV show segment. Their Jack Ryan becomes inspired by the tragic events of 9-11, becomes horribly injured during a helicopter accident in Afghanistan, and falls in love with the doctor who teaches him how to walk again. That’s close enough. Care and detail in the many nuances of a character’s life are quickly swept aside in favor of some Soviet ass-kicking. Or ass-grazing as the case may be.
It's surprising that, as brushed over as it is, the Jack Ryan backstory is really the most interesting Shadow Recruit gets. Once the action sets in, the blandness the screenwriters and director Kenneth Branagh have brought to the table is resoundingly clear. It’s not new that the villains are Russian, led by the aforementioned and thick-accented Branagh. It’s not interesting that they’re big plot involves collapsing the American dollar. The script quickly bounces Ryan into Mother Russia where the film can just as quickly adjust to its Jason Bourne-ness. Or James Bond-ness. Or Ethan Hunt-ness. The style of action and Euro-aesthetic have now made these four franchises interchangeable. Thank God the people behind Bond and Mission: Impossible still give a damn about creativity.
Shadow Recruit has a smattering of decent-sized action set pieces, those sets being the most impressive element to the whole film. Unfortunately, as was the case when he took on directing duties for Thor, Branagh does not have a gifted eye when it comes to action. Extreme closeups during fist fights and car chases alike are only a few aspects that drive excitement away from the film. I should say "a fist fight" and "a car chase", as that's all the action Cozad and Koepp's story can muster. The days of submarines launching themselves out of the water and high-speed boat chases are a thing of the past. Now we're left with the staleness that comes with elaborate schemes to break into someone's office or bombs with giant clocks on them. Shadow Recruit settles for both.
Ryan's wife in Clancy's novels, Cathy Muller, has always had a presence in the films. While it was a brief cameo in The Hunt for Red October - played by Gates McFadden - the character had larger parts when Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck took over the Ryan role, Anne Archer and Bridget Moynahan taking on the part, respectively. However, even in those films the character wasn't used as she is in Shadow Recruit, a key plot device to distract the bad guy while our heroes are doing that office break-in thing. It's almost as tired as the "I'm with the CIA" conversation Ryan has with her, which is almsot as tired as the jokes that come from it. "This is geopolitics, not couples therapy," says Ryan's CIA handler Thomas Harper, played by Kevin Costner, getting in some misplaced levity. It's cutesy, Hollywood joke-making that adds to the triteness this character and franchise have now taken on.
Keira Knightley takes on the Muller role this time around, and the actress turns in a capable performance. The same can be said for Costner and Branagh, neither of which stepping up their game to give us anything remotely resembling powerhouse. It's a shame, too, as all three actors are fully capable of just that. The film simply never allows them to break from their one-dimensional characters.
Ryan isn't as one-dimensional, but that doesn't mean Pine delivers anything spectacular. He's not even on solid ground here, relying on natural charm rather than pushing the performance. His blue eyes are strong supporting players here, the assist on that more than likely going to Branagh and whatever color correction is working in post to make those eyes pierce even stronger. At this point, though, Pine appears to be playing the same part in most of these vehicles he's stepping into. When Costner's Harper comes to talk the reluctant hero into joining the CIA, it may as well be Captain Pike talking him into joining Starfleet or Denzel Washington talking him into trying to stop an unstoppable train. You can't blame Pine for that familiar ground on which Shadow Recruit is playing, but he doesn't bring anything new to the game, either.
Nobody does here, really. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is just like every, bland, espionage thriller that comes down the turnpike. Neither adding any freshness to the character nor even capturing the spirit that made the character so beloved in the first place, it passes by with a wholly forgettable nod. Given those involved, it's not shocking that Shadow Recruit doesn't deliver on exciting action nor unexpected plot turns. That whole "Trust No One" tagline the movie is using is never fulfilled, spoiler alert. It is unfortunate, though, that the dozens of Jack Ryan novels - Not to mention how many thousands of pages - Tom Clancy has given us have had a difficult time recently in spawning decent cinema. Here's hoping the next time they try to reboot this franchise, some of Clancy's detail works its way in. For now, though, let's disavow the fact that Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit even existed.
Jeremy's Rating: 4 out of 10
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