Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit


Kenneth Branagh
Adam Cozad, David Koepp (Based on the characters of Tom Clancy)
105 min.
Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Lenn Kudrjawizki, Alec Utgoff, Peter Andersson, Elena Velikanova, Nonso Anozie, Seth Ayott, Colm Feore, Gemma Chan
MPAA Rating
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and intense action, and brief strong language

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Source Material

As many times as Paramount has attempted to resurrect the Jack Ryan franchise, you would think they would have tried some new formula. Yet, here we are again with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit picking up a hot new “it” guy (like Ben Affleck the last time) and trying to turn a servicable, but unimpressive script into a massive, overhyped phenomenon.

At the height of the Cold War, Jack Ryan was one of a handful of prominent spy thriller characters that audiences loved. It made sense that the films of that period were hugely popular. Yet, as the threat of nuclear annihlation subsided with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, audiences became less enthused with the spy genre, which fought tooth and nail to remain relevant. Even James Bond struggled through that period, trying to reinvent itself more than once under Pierce Brosnan.

Today, spy thrillers either need to be slow-boil artistic affairs like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or they have to be action-heavy, twist-riddled event pictures like the Bourne franchise. Only James Bond has managed to reinvent itself by going darker and more brooding, more like what the original novels were. Someone forgot to pass that memo off to Paramount. They brought in generic scribe David Koepp to work with first-time screenwriter Adam Cozad to resurrect the character who made The Hunt for Red October a hit.

This story is set in modern times, with a mafia-styled Russian businessman Viktor Cherevin (director Kenneth Branagh also starring) using his wealth and influence to threaten economic collapse in the U.S. by simultaneously orchestrating a terrorist attack to help destablize the world market making him and his Russian associates filty rich. To stop him, the C.I.A. employs young analyst Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) to use his planted position in a banking firm to go after Cherevin. Things take an unexpected turn for him, but the “trust no one” tagline the film was sold on never comes in to play.

Branagh successfully launched the Thor franchise as part of Marvel’s reinvention, so it seemed a logical idea to peg him to direct the rebirth of Jack Ryan. Branagh is classically trained, a Shakespearean director and actor of excellent capabilities, but an terrific director he is not. Thor is easily the weakest of the pre-Avengers Marvel films and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit exemplifies his inability to try new things and paint outside the numbers he’s assigned with the script. Being a great actor doesn’t always translate into being able to direct actors, not even himself.

Pine is one of those actors who doesn’t look like he’s trying too hard. Like his performances in the Star Trek reboot franchise, he gives minimal effort for minimal reward. He’s a pretty face that doesn’t seem to have much depth to his personality, which creates a stumbling block for giving his characters a portion of it. Jack Ryan doesn’t have to be suave like James Bond, he has to be believable, an everyman who audiences can project themselves onto. Pine just doesn’t have the capability and so far I haven’t seen any proof to the contrary.

Keira Knightley, who plays Jack Ryan’s financée is a gifted actress, but only in the hands of Joe Wright. Any time you see Knightley performing outside of one of his films, her personality drifts to blandly appealing. Maybe it’s a lack of well-written character that’s hurting her. After all, the Pirates of the Caribbean films aren’t exactly Dostoyevskian literature. Shadow Recruit has a similar populist appeal to the Pirates films, so creating depth-less characters is par for the course. Yet, as many of the blockbusters in recent years have proven, you can have complex, damaged characters and still make a great deal of money.

Kevin Costner does decently with the bit part he’s given as the C.I.A. handler that guides the inexperienced Jack Ryan through the obstacle course of foreign espionage. This isn’t an Oscar-calibre performance, but of all the actors in the film, he comes off the best even if he seems to be searching mostly for a paycheck, not for a means of stretching. The same can be said of Branagh. This isn’t Shakespeare, but even a trained actor can add immeasurable depth and force of personality to a nothing character. Unfortunately, that’s part of the problem. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is work for hire, not a passion project, so it isn’t surprising that he puts for minimal effort to create a sneering villain that isn’t easily differentiated from every other sneering villain in a spy film in the last two decades.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit could have benefited from hiring a screenwriter with an eye on crafting rich, complex characters and plot lines instead of someone trying to create such a generic thriller that mass audiences would flock to see it. That type of approach isn’t working and thankfully, audiences aren’t falling for it anymore. There are some action directors who can still draw audiences to the theater, but as those franchises die down, a new reality may finally set in. Films like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, simplistic, uncomplicate thrillers, won’t have a place in the world and hopefully we’ll get something better.
Oscar Prospects
Unlikelies: Everything
Review Written
February 11, 2014

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