Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

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The late Tom Clancy’s most famous character is dusted off and rebooted once again in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, an entertaining if rudimentary assembly of familiar espionage plot devices and characters. Those who remember the previous Ryan films - in particular the original trilogy of The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger - will feel immediately at home in this new take, which moves the character in to the present day whilst portraying a reasonably faithful version of his origins. But the uncomplicated plot, brisk pace and short-ish running time mean that, compared to those previous outings, this is a lightweight take on Clancy’s hero, lacking the murky politics which usually dragged him out of his depth.

Beginning in London in 2001, young economics student Jack Ryan (Chris Pine, slipping comfortably in to the shoes of the wet-behind-the-ears version of Ryan previously played by Alec Baldwin in Red October and Ben Affleck in the underrated The Sum of All Fears) witnesses the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and promptly enlists in the army. After being invalided home from the front line in Afghanistan he is recruited in to the CIA by veteran agent Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), and put to work undercover on Wall Street to sniff out potential links to terrorism. Now living with girlfriend Cathy (Keira Knightley), the nurse who assisted his recovery, he discovers several financial irregularities indicating a possible attempt to destabilise the US economy, which leads him in turn to mysterious Russian businessman Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh).

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At first it’s a pleasantly nostalgic experience to see the Russians as the bad guys again, though naturally ones at arm’s length from the government, which the script explicitly spells out.
That’s the trouble these days: Hollywood fears offending any potential overseas market, even China, as recently evidenced by the botched remake of Red Dawn which laughably replaced an invading Chinese army with North Koreans during post-production. No such nonsense here thankfully, although not too much to get excited about either. This new Ryan prequel, written by Adam Cozad and David Koepp but not based on any specific Clancy novel, fails to revive the sense of life and death being at stake, which classic Cold War plots could instantly conjure. Even an attempted terrorist attack on New York City itself fails to raise the level of suspense much above average.

Pulling double duty as both director and the story’s villain, Branagh seems to have spread himself a little too thinly. On screen he’s as icily inscrutable as any Russian bureaucrat must be; in fact he’s too inscrutable, never managing to seem terribly threatening at all. At best he is perhaps rather grumpy. Behind the camera he fares a bit better, delivering glossy looking action as Ryan tries to outwit his adversary in a luxurious skyscraper and then on the streets of Moscow, before a tense showdown in Manhattan. But every plot twist, character and action set piece feels overly familiar - it brings nothing new to the table, unable either to escape the shadow of its predecessors or to convincingly compete with modern day Bond and Bourne. It feels like reheated leftovers made by a committee who once saw an action film in 2004.

Chris Pine is at least a good fit for the role of young Ryan. Less cocky than his Captain Kirk but just as resourceful, there’s a convincing sense that Ryan could be a hero for our times: more geeky than Bourne’s ultra serious lethal weapon, more open than Bond’s closed book of secrets. If a sequel is forthcoming, there should be no need to recast the role yet again. Kevin Costner mostly looks bored while dispensing advice and orders as Ryan’s mentor, and Keira Knightley feels weirdly miscast as the romantic interest unwittingly pulled in to Cherevin’s plot. In its own quaintly formulaic way Shadow Recruit is a decent enough timewaster, but it will leave you hankering for the real thing.

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