by Matt Levine
The world may not have been clamoring for another reboot to the Jack Ryan franchise, but Paramount Pictures has provided one anyway. Reprising the role previously inhabited by Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October, 1990), Harrison Ford (Patriot Games, 1992; Clear and Present Danger, 1994), and Ben Affleck (The Sum of All Fears, 2002), Chris Pine stars as the CIA financial analyst, who in this case uncovers a Russian plot to deplete the American dollar (and bring about “the Second Great Depression”) with a terrorist attack on Wall Street. This sounds like yet another generic America-in-peril spy thriller, and for the most part it is; but it’s also a clear example of solid actors and craftsmen enlivening trite material, making for agreeable entertainment despite the movie’s nagging familiarity.
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Producers: Dana Goldberg, Tommy Harper
Writers: Adam Cozad, David Koepp, based on characters created by Tom Clancy
Cinematographer: Haris Zambarloukos
Editor: Martin Walsh
Music: Patrick Doyle
Cast: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Lenn Kudrjawizki, Alec Utgoff, Peter Andersson, Elena Velikanova
US Theatrical Release: January 17, 2014
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
In an effort to provide a modicum of characterization as quickly as possible, Shadow Recruit begins with two hurried prologues. We first meet Jack Ryan Redux on the morning of September 11, 2001, as a PhD student in economics at a London university. A crowd gathers around a television on campus, aghast at the news coming from New York: the Twin Towers have been attacked. The carnage compels Ryan to enlist in the Marines, where he rises to the rank of lieutenant in three short years. Yet his military career seems cut short when his helicopter is bombed in Afghanistan; Ryan is rushed to a military hospital with two fractured vertebrae, though not before he rescues two of his fellow soldiers from the blazing wreckage.
At the military hospital, Ryan is invited by CIA operative Tom Harper (Kevin Costner) to serve as a covert financial analyst for the US government. Another brusque flash-forward ten years later sees Ryan working out of a Wall Street powerhouse, monitoring economic threats to America’s embattled economy (unbeknownst to the stock-market wheelers and dealers that surround him.) All of these events rush dizzyingly at the audience in the first fifteen minutes; it’s an admirable attempt at fleshing out a believably human character, though these opening scenes make you wish Shadow Recruit would slow down every once in a while to linger on these ostensibly emotional scenes.
But fast-paced storytelling is paramount in genre pictures like this, so the plot stampedes onward: Ryan uncovers a nefarious plot by a Russian capitalist named Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) to dismantle the US economy by selling billions of dollars in American investments after attacking Wall Street. Cherevin, one character says, is a new breed of Russian ideologue, adhering to the tenets of capitalism rather than communism. As played by Branagh, Cherevin is a smirking monster, zealously loyal to Mother Russia and brutal to his subordinates; the character’s tragically ironic fate is one of the more interesting plot trajectories in Shadow Recruit, though the specific motivation for his seething hatred of the United States remains frustratingly unclear.
Shadow Recruit always seems on the verge of tiptoeing towards some kind of social commentary, but it never follows through on this potential. When Ryan is first approached by Agent Harper about working for the CIA, for example, Ryan initially bristles; “you guys aren’t very popular these days,” he says, citing recent interrogation tactics like waterboarding. On the other hand, Cherevin and his shady goons bring to mind the Soviet supervillains who dominated spy thrillers during the 1950s and ‘60s; with only Cherevin’s murky background to provide context, it seems like the main reason for his economic terrorism is lingering Cold War resentment (hardly an original character motivation).
That being said, Shadow Recruit exudes more political intelligence than the average action flick: it’s a film that at least attempts to grapple with our own recognizable reality. The irony of two seemingly contradistinctive world powers invading Afghanistan within two decades of each other is not lost on the movie; like the underrated Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011), this is an action film distinguished by its bemused cynicism at the absurdity of geo-politics. Just as interesting is the fact that the world economy has become the battlefield for modern terrorism; while Cherevin is still a Russian baddie targeting Manhattan with a van full of explosives, his M.O. is unique and says a great deal about how warfare and diplomacy have changed over the last half-century.
The entire film is essentially a tug-of-war between typical spy-movie tropes and a desire to make something unique and powerful. Ultimately, it’s a draw. The plot becomes more and more derivative as it goes on, eventually devolving into a carbon-copy action movie without the astounding choreography and stuntwork needed to elevate something like this into truly thrilling territory. The film makes the same mistake that most action movies inexplicably do: the action itself is filmed with a frenetic camera and edited into split-second incomprehensibility, turning most of the setpieces into a muddled mess (though there are two incredible car chases that are almost worth the price of admission on their own). Despite the feeling that we’ve seen all of this numerous times, though, there is enough subtext to provide at least a little mental stimulation along with the visceral overload, and the relationship between Ryan and his fiancée, Cathy (Keira Knightley), has a surprising tenderness to it. This is where Pine and Knightley radiate their natural charisma; the script during many of their scenes together could have been horrendous in other actors’ hands, but they know how to derive a trace of sincerity from a hackneyed screenplay. The pleasures of Shadow Recruit constantly do battle with the film’s clichés and bombastic tone, ultimately leaving us with a well-made (though rarely innovative) piece of lean entertainment.
In Branagh’s peculiar career path as a director, which has led him from vivid Shakespeare adaptations to mainstream Hollywood blockbusters (the first of which was Thor in 2011), Shadow Recruit is no better or worse than could be expected. It’s a solid piece of craftsmanship, though one wishes a little bit more personality shone through. If this is supposed to have us thirsting for the next Jack Ryan installment, however, the movie can’t be called a success; this is primarily another entry in Hollywood’s lazy attempt to cash in on a preexisting name (even one that’s only moderately popular, as Jack Ryan seems to be.) The movie might seem more unique if it was its own standalone story (which, in fact, it initially was: Adam Cozad’s original script, entitled Dubai, was adapted into a Jack Ryan reboot by a handful of screenwriters.) Here is where I could obligatorily decry Hollywood’s money-grubbing tactics, its irritating propensity to repeat formulas in order to hike up box office profits; but why bother? If the major studios continue to offer us market-tested reboots and sequels and spinoffs (and of course they always will), they could do a lot worse—and a lot better—than Shadow Recruit.