Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Posted: February 11, 2014 in Film reviews
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Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Starring Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner and Kenneth Branagh.

It’s somewhat scary to realise that The Hunt for Red October came out way back in 1990! Back then CIA analyst Jack Ryan was played by Alec Baldwin, though he was soon replaced in the role by Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. An attempt was made to reboot the franchise in 2002 with Ben Affleck which, whilst successful, was never followed up on.

Although I kind of fell out with Tom Clancy’s work over time I am a big fan of a lot of the novels featuring Ryan, so when news broke that another reboot was in the works I was interested, despite some misgivings about the casting of Pine, and initial set photos that seemed to indicate they were planning to turn Ryan into some kind of Bond/Bourne action hero.

The film begins on 9/11, where Jack Ryan is studying at the London School of Economics. When the twin towers fall however he quits his studies and enlists in the Marines. Flash forward a couple of years to Afghanistan and he’s involved in a helicopter crash that leaves him unable to walk. Whilst he recovers he meets both Cathy Muller (Knightly) a med student, and the mysterious Thomas Harper (Costner). Muller will eventually become his fiancée, whilst Harper recruits him to the CIA and wants him to work undercover on Wall Street.

Flash forward ten more years and Ryan uncovers a plot by Russian patriot Viktor Cherevin (Branagh) to cause a financial crisis that will usher in a second great depression in America. Harper sends Ryan to Moscow to find out more, but things soon start to spiral out of control for Ryan. First he’s almost killed by an assassin in his hotel room, and then Cathy turns up unexpectedly, meaning all of a sudden it isn’t just Jack in Cherevin’s sights.

There’s something quite old fashioned about this film, and I’m not just talking about its Cold War vibe. The film actually looked quite old and grainy in places, though whether this was a conscious decision on the part of the filmmakers, or just down to lousy projection by my local Cineworld, I don’t know.

Joking aside this plays less like a modern techno blockbuster and more like an old school spy thriller, bringing to mind films such as The Fourth Protocol. By turns this is both refreshing and frustrating. Refreshing in that the film is more than just a series of dumb action set pieces, and frustrating because it makes the film feel a little dated.

It’s to the film makers credit that they take the time to show us some of Ryan’s backstory rather than just dropping the character on us fully formed, so we see the helicopter crash that left him a cripple, see him learning to walk again, the implication of an issue with painkillers, see him meet Cathy and be recruited by the CIA. The downside is that it makes the opening to the film a bit choppy, though it’s nowhere near as daft as the opening portion of The Last Crusade where seeming every aspect of Indiana Jones’ character arose out of one incident on a train!

The terrorist attack finale is perfectly serviceable, if more than a little generic, but it is in the bulk of the film between the origin story and the explosive finale where the film finds its metier, and whilst Jack’s assertion that Russia is about to bring down the US economy seems to come out of nowhere, once he’s on the way to Moscow the film settles into a comfortable rhythm.

Set-piece wise this isn’t a rollicking action movie where one gun battle morphs into another and a succession of car chases try to outdo each other. Instead there are quieter moments, secret codes, lonely meetings in forests, loaded conversations, secret liaisons on park benches. It’s all a little sub- John le Carré, though I would stress this isn’t a bad thing, and when the action arrives it’s handled deftly by Branagh for the most part (aside from some annoying shaky cam bits) and whilst the fight in a hotel bathroom isn’t quite Casino Royale brutal, its exceptionally well put together, as is a tense spot of breaking and entering and a car chase that serves as the backdrop for an unsettling conversation about the potential misuse of a light bulb.

Pine is solid as Ryan, playing the character deftly, allowing him to be both thoughtful and a man of action, and if some of his ‘analysing’ is a bit simplistic then that’s the script’s issue rather than his, and he convinces as a man who can handle himself in a fight, but only barely, and there’s more than a hint of vulnerability in his Ryan that is sadly lacking in many modern day action heroes, and perfectly in tune with the character. I can barely remember what Affleck was like in the role, and frankly I never thought Ford was well cast, so for me Baldwin is the definitive Jack Ryan, but I’d have to put Pine second to him now.

Knightly is very good, or at least she was once I acclimatised to her American accent. Seriously, hearing cut glass Keira saying “Moss-Cow” isn’t pleasant. Other than this she’s great, even if her undercover work seems a little too polished (I kept thinking, give this girl her own spy film!) and whilst she does have to act as the damsel in distress at times, even then she imbues Cathy with strength of character.

It’s nice to see Kevin Costner getting a bit of a renaissance of late, and he plays the laconic older mentor to a tee. Similarly Branagh is as reliable as ever, although in some ways his portrayal of Cherevin is a microcosm of the film itself. At times he’s a complex patriot, at others a moustache twirling villain of the kind who routinely kills his henchman just so you know he’s the bad guy. So it is with the film, and at times it’s quite intelligent, whilst at others it doesn’t do much to stand out from the action herd.

It doesn’t reinvent the genre, it isn’t going to win any awards, and it may well be a little too subdued to kick-start the franchise once more, but it’s a solidly enjoyable film that never once bored me, and left me hoping that it does do well enough to prompt a sequel, because whilst it isn’t based on an actual book of Clancy’s it feels like it should be, which is probably the biggest compliment I can pay it.

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