The new spy thriller, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, directed by Kenneth Branagh and staring Star Trek’s Chris Pine, plays like an attempt to launch a studio franchise, though not a very good one.
Pine plays the eponymous Ryan, based loosely on the hero of Tom Clancy’s much-adapted novels (The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear, and Present Danger). He is an economics Ph.D. and former marine who is recruited by the CIA to embed in a Wall Street firm and poke around suspicious offshore bank accounts. When Ryan discovers a load of cash sitting in the accounts of one of his firm’s Russian partners, he notifies his government handlers. They need him to go to Russia and sort it out, obviously, because he’s the only econ genius in the CIA who can handle the mission. When Ryan arrives, and his bodyguard tries to put a hit on him, he knows he’s in over his head. Things don’t get any easier when just as he makes contact with the big bad Russian oligarch, Viktor Cherevin (played by Branagh), who may be behind an attempt to destroy America by destabilizing the value of the dollar, his catty girlfriend Cathy (Keira Knightley) shows up unexpectedly. No matter, Cathy turns out to be a natural double agent.
Some of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’s problems are rooted in a sloppy script, which doesn’t do a good job developing a very compelling central character, and rounds out the cast with clichés and half attempts at genre novelty. There are also some plot potholes, awkward transitions, twists, and random asides. Branagh’s directing too feels misapplied. He allows tense, kinetic moments to dissolve into a blur of camera motions, and the one real Mission Impossible-style standoff is spoiled by sloppy development and an inconsistent sense of place.
The film’s biggest problem, however, is its main character. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit tries to present an unlikely hero, a brainy Boy Scout who was a marine, but never trained as a secret agent. He lacks James Bond’s finesse or Jason Bourne’s physical prowess, and the idea seems to be that this will make him more relatable and distinctive, but instead it makes him unconvincing — and even worse, unattractive. The hammy, sit-com-y subplot romance between Jack and Cathy is not only overly cutesy, grating, and un-compelling, but when the couple is roped into the broader international intrigue, the entire thing feels unbelievable. Kevin Costner plays Thomas Harper, his CIA recruiter and contact in the field, and he is an entirely bland creation.
Branagh gives himself the film’s single emotional note, a death scene featuring a shred of Shakespearean pathos. But that we are most moved by the trials and travails of the bad guys (in fact I found myself rooting for their scheme to succeed just so something bold and fantastic could happen on screen) is indicative of the poor job the film does in investing us in its main characters. However, there are some good one-liners here and there, and for fans of the spy genre, plenty of the typical computers-in-trucks, silent-handoffs, and shadowy twists to keep you half interested. The problem for Paramount, though, is that this new franchise doesn’t feel like it’s going to fly.