As an exercise in brand resuscitation, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit could be worse; the film does what films of its sort must, building its titular protagonist from the ground up and establishing a potential new franchise for the character going forward. Should the stars align (literally), we could see a Jack Ryan continuance in just a couple of years’ time, assuming Chris Pine can wriggle free from Star Trek‘s grasp and Kevin Costner isn’t busy playing the wise mentor figure to another young buck trying to figure out how to be a hero. This is malleable filmmaking. It necessitates very little by way of continuity.
Of course, that particular element has been a thorn in Ryan’s cinematic side for as long as Hollywood has attempted to capture him on celluloid. How can an audience respect a series whose central figure ages and de-ages drastically between each film, and who goes from looking like Harrison Ford to looking like Ben Affleck? Pine feels like a good heir to both actors’ contributions to what’s arguably the late Tom Clancy’s greatest invention; he’s young, he’s eager, he oozes easygoing charisma, and he knows how to make physical therapy look like it requires Herculean muster on his behalf. His casting feels like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit‘s most essential flourish.
Whether or not this reboot is capable of going the distance hinges on his presence, in fact. The world doesn’t need yet another Jack Ryan, no matter what brand new nefarious terrorist plot he’s set out to foil. This time around, it’s a threat of a financial nature; despite being just a lowly analyst, Ryan manages to uncover a plan to devastate the global economy, though there’s also a component to the scheme that involves blowing stuff up. (Of course.) Credit Russian oligarch Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, pulling double duty as the evil foreign stereotype and as director) for masterminding America’s downfall in secret, but don’t count out the plucky, overwhelmed Ryan as he races to save the planet from certain doom. (Kinda.)
Before we get to this juicy, meat-headed nonsense, though, we first have to meet Ryan at a formative point in his life. Would you be surprised to learn that 9/11 happens to be a major source of motivation for this latter-day incarnation of Ryan? Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit begins by replaying the attacks on the Twin Towers on television monitors as a shocked Ryan looks on, transfixed in horror; he enlists, gets deployed, gets blown up in a helicopter, and rises from the ashes like a star-powered phoenix to fight the good fight once more at the behest of CIA spook William Harper (a world-weary Kevin Costner), and also shack up with Keira Knightley. It’s standard origin story stuff, really, and Branagh attempts to play on our pathos by connecting the dots to a real-life tragedy.
It all feels supremely unnecessary, but despite the insensitivity can anyone really fault Skydance and Paramount for wanting a fresh start? It’s been over a decade since audiences and critics alike shrugged off The Sum of All Fears like so much flotsam and got on with their lives. Admittedly, that film had the misfortune of coming out at exactly the wrong time, less than a year after 9/11 actually transpired after being delayed from a release that would have put it even closer to the tragedy; combined with Ben Affleck’s leading man presence (pre-Gigli, in fairness), the movie never really had a chance. Why resurrect Jack Ryan at all, then, and why now? Probably because the reboot trend has proven itself as a blueprint for box office success. Who needs imagination when you have previously existing properties to cannibalize?
In the case of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, odds don’t necessarily favor a Man of Steel outcome – if you’re at the theaters during this time of the year, you’re most likely catching up on Oscar movies – but maybe they should. We’re down a good spy franchise now that we’re done with the Bourne films (the ones worth watching anyways), and we only get a Bond picture every few years if we’re lucky. Nobody has managed to successfully forge a cohesive screen identity for Ryan, but as played by Pine, he’s somewhere between James and Jason, while Branagh’s direction falls squarely into the realm of imitation Paul Greengrass. Theirs is a potentially winning formula, not necessarily here but perhaps in future outings where a lean spy thriller can just be a lean spy thriller instead of Batman Begins with Manhattan replacing Gotham.
Branagh doesn’t really need to return to a sequel should one arise; anybody with a knack for muscular, no-frills action and loaded scenes of actors subtly threaten each other through the art of conversation. It’s the latter point that makes Branagh, whose accent can most kindly be described as a Boris Badenov homage, a snug fit for the material behind the camera, though to his credit he relaxes quite happily into the over-the-top megalomania of his villain role in front of it, too. He’s not quite as adept when it comes to shooting action, employing the shakiness of Bourne with none of the impact and displaying an imagination that doesn’t go further back than 2006’s Casino Royale.
Clearly, fight scenes and car chases aren’t his forte. That’s kind of a big deal, since fight scenes and car chases make up a huge part of what makes these sorts of stories appealing. So Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit only kinda sorta works; it’s adequate, which all things considered should be seen as astronomically high praise given that this film represents the first major studio release of 2014. Everyone involved on this production could have sleep-walked through the whole thing. Surprisingly, they didn’t, and Pine has enough oomph on his own to keep the whole thing afloat even at its worst. Jack Ryan probably won’t set the world on fire, but for early-year rebooting entertainment, it could be a lot worse.