Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit knows its place in the canon of spy films, and has fun with it. Ryan, a creation of the late Tom Clancy and the hero of four previous films, lacks the charm of James Bond or the quiet intelligence of George Smiley. Director Kenneth Branagh knows Ryan is a middling character, so there are moments where he embraces tropes of the genre and others where he abandons them altogether. It’s a pleasant exercise, but is not enough to sustain a slight story, one riddled with unintentionally hilarious holes. The actors slyly break the fourth wall with this material, yet their subtle winks to the audience are not enough to sustain this franchise.
In Clancy’s world, Ryan (Chris Pine) is a red-blooded geek who transitions from analysis toward field work. Shadow Recruit gives him a lot of back story: it begins at the London School of Economics, where Ryan is a PhD student. He watches 9/11 on TV, which then inspires him to enlist in the Marines. His time in Afghanistan does not go well. He sustains a back injury in a helicopter attack, and eventually he meets Cathy (Keira Knightly) during his recovery at Walter Reed. There’s another fateful encounter during Ryan’s convalescence: Thomas Harper (a flinty Kevin Costner) recruits him for the CIA. Ryan’s job is to work on Wall Street and keep Harper informed about any unusual activity. He sees some hidden accounts from Russia, so Ryan heads to Moscow for an explanation from the sneaky Viktor Cherevin (Branagh). Turns out that terrorist activity can be profitable if they coincide with a country’s economic collapse.
The biggest inspiration for Shadow Recruit is 2006’s Casino Royale. The most obvious is Ryan’s first on-the-job kill: it also ends in a bathroom, with the bad guy drowning. Both films also revolve around a protracted set-piece, one where the hero and villain sit across from another. In Casino Royale, it’s a poker game. It’s just dinner in Shadow Recruit, but there’s the added tension when Cathy (now his fiancee) crashes the operation. Instead of keeping her out of the loop, and there’s an interesting, tender scene where she and Cherevin speak quietly. Branagh is no acting slouch, obviously, and the best moments are when his character strikes a balance between deference and menace. He and Ryan exchange early barbs, and it’s about the smartest thing anyone says in the movie.
It’s a good thing the dialogue has a touch of wit since the action and plot are not so clever. There is major a suspension of disbelief here: not enough to derail the movie, but enough where I found myself thinking about why certain developments would not work. The biggest problem is Cherevin as the villain: Branagh wants him to be this intuitive badass, yet he cannot figure out until it’s too late that he’s being played. Many characters, including Ryan, adapt their skills/values to what the script requires of them and it should be the other way around. While Branagh got his start with Shakespeare, he’s hardly an action novice (his last film is the surprisingly entertaining Thor). Still, there are jarring takes on a dolly where the camera movement tries to be elegant and ends up looking forced. The chase sequences do not fare better; Branagh borrows from the Greengrass School of cutting quickly and often, to the point where the action is unclear. The final chase in Manhattan may include a playful example of Chekov’s Gun, but it’s hardly climactic.
There is a long scene in Shadow Recruit where Ryan and Harper try to solve the details of Cherevin’s plan. It involves them sorting through reams of data so they can precisely pinpoint just when an attack on America will happen. Midway through the scene – convincing as ever, Chris Pine has a unique way of selling too much exposition – I realized that Edward Snowden quite literally warned the American public about this kind of meta-data. Then I found myself wondering if the CIA meant for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit to serve as propaganda: it justifies domestic spying with a last minute attempt to foil deranged terrorists. The CIA cooperated on Patriot Games and The Sum of All Fears. Both films feature Jack Ryan, so maybe the organization wants to create a narrative that justifies an infringement on our civil liberties. After I finished that thought, I realized I was thinking about propaganda precisely because I was not involved in the movie. Who cares about CIA involvement when a movie is breathlessly suspenseful? Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is not.