There's a scene midway through Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit in which Jack (Chris Pine, Star Trek) has to give his CIA boss William Harper (Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves) an important but complicated piece of information. “Explain it to me, but keep in mind that I don't have your PhD,” Harper insists. Ryan delivers the information. Harper furrows his brow. “Now explain it to me like I'm a dummy,” he says. The biggest problem with Kenneth Branagh's stab at rebooting the Jack Ryan franchise is that it consistently treats the audience like dummies, too, oversimplifying the vast complications of Tom Clancy's dictionary-sized novels out of fear that modern audiences won't tolerate being asked to sit through a movie that's more concerned with complex plotting than action.
The problem with turning Jack Ryan into a conventional action hero is that it defies the character's very nature. “I'm just an analyst,” Ryan says, re-emphasizing the decades-old notion that the character isn't a man of action, he's a man of ideas. Sure, he can handle himself well enough if he has to, but he isn't some sort of video game super-soldier. Except, well, this time he is. There's an early sequence which informs us that Ryan voluntarily served in Afghanistan, where he survived a helicopter crash and pulled two of his men from the wreckage despite the fact that he had a broken back. The doctors gasp at the physical impossibility of his heroic actions, but declare that he'll never see action again. Indeed, he may never walk again. This struck me as a reasonably effective (if heavy-handed) way of establishing a reason for Ryan to be “just an analyst,” but no. It's merely a speed bump on Ryan's journey to becoming the real-world equivalent of Captain America.
Ryan undergoes rehab, where he receives invaluable assistance from the lovely Dr. Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley, Pride & Prejudice). I wish I had a better descriptor for Cathy than “lovely,” which is a generic term used too often to describe attractive women playing leading roles, but the screenplay doesn't really provide me with many other options. She's pretty, she's friendly, she falls for Ryan and then quickly fills the role of “the girl” (in other words: she questions our hero's actions, eventually realizes she was wrong to question him and then serves as a damsel in distress). Anyway, it's during this rehab period that Jack is noticed by Harper, who determines that Jack's combination of business acumen, exceptional intelligence and proven bravery make him an ideal candidate for the CIA.
Jack's job is an exceptionally secretive one. He gains employment as a compliance officer at a stock brokerage firm, and gathers information for the CIA under the noses of his Wall Street employers. He's been assigned to keep an eye out for any suspicious activity happening in foreign markets, and eventually Jack spots something worth investigating. A Russian tycoon named Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, Hamlet) has been shifting funds around in a manner that seems designed to cover up illegal activity, so Jack determines to investigate. Naturally, Viktor is much more than shifty entrepreneur – he's a patriotic terrorist preparing to take extreme measures in an effort to sink the American economy. “It'll be The Second Great Depression,” Ryan declares, once again explaining it to us like we're dummies.
There's both an undeniable awkwardness and a certain earnest charm to the way Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit attempts to haul Tom Clancy's square-jawed thrillers of the '80s and '90s into the 21st Century, but it's hard to escape the feeling that Clancy was a man of his time. The film's very first scene sees Ryan witnessing the events of September 11th, 2001, which seems to be the film's way of acknowledging that this movie's version of the character is operating in a very different world from that of his cinematic predecessors. Additionally, there's a brief scene which acknowledges the CIA's less-than-stellar current reputation. “The CIA is associated with torture, rendition,” Ryan notes. “People don't like you guys very much these days.” “Not my branch,” Harper shrugs, and off we go. Despite all of the constant reminders that we're watching a modern story (the fate of the free world rests on a flash drive), this is a thoroughly old-fashioned movie.
Nothing wrong with that, but in this case it also means we're relying on familiar character tropes. Pine and Knightley are talented actors with a lot of range, but here they're just playing unmemorable variations on the hero and the hero's gal. We're told that Ryan has a lot of distinguishing traits – he's incredibly brilliant, he has a boy scout-ish enthusiasm, he's just an analyst – but none of that stuff really registers in Pine's performance. Costner does the professional gravitas thing rather well, but the persuasive nature of his performance only partially covers the fact that he's playing a one-note character. Branagh's playing a typical villain, too (he shoots incompetent henchmen, delivers Bond villain monologues about history and adopts a thick, silly Russian accent), but at least he seems to be having some fun.
It's a pity Branagh's playful theatricality stays in front of the camera. Behind it, he seems to be making an ill-advised effort to reshape himself as a modern action director. The shaky-cam action scenes (and there are too many of them, particularly in the third act) feel like Paul Greengrass-lite, by no means a natural extension of a man who's clearly stronger in a more classical mode of filmmaking. Branagh doesn't seem to trust his own voice and he doesn't seem to trust his audience. This is a typical, brainless, timid reboot, which is the last thing I'd expect from the man who reimagined Sleuth as an exercise in chilly minimalism, turned Mary Shelley's Frankenstein into a wildly feverish melodrama and gave us a complete four-hour adaptation of Hamlet. Opinions on those movies vary, but they were made by a filmmaker with a distinctive voice. I want him back.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Year: 2014