‘It’s probably a good thing Tom Clancy didn’t live long enough to see his most popular creation rendered so, well, average’ – MacDara Conroy on Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan has reached the silver screen on four separate occasions, first via Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October and then most memorably played by Harrison Ford in Phillip Noyce’s early-nineties double-hander Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. The franchise has lain dormant since Ben Affleck’s effort in the acceptable Sum Of All Fears in 2002, so the latest attempt to reboot the character as the American James Bond seems reasonable enough, if you forget that was already done with the Bourne movies. But even then it’s worth considering that beyond the gritty action of those flicks is a sensibility that’s far too European, too anti-establishment, too liberal for The Real America, the one where Sarah Palin lives with the Tea Party and the only TV channel is Fox News. There’s still a vacancy there for a proper gung-ho true American super-spy hero, and the refreshed Jack Ryan fits that bill to a tee.
In Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, clean-cut, chisel-jawed Chris Pine (Star Trek) takes on the mantle as the youngest Ryan yet, spurred on by 9/11 to abandon his postgrad studies for the Marine Corps and a helicopter tour of Afghanistan. After being shot down by enemy rocket fire, Ryan finds himself in Walter Reed learning to walk again, and attracting the attentions of both spirited student doctor Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley) and gruff-but-fair CIA recruiter Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner). Fast forward 10 years and Ryan’s on Wall Street as a covert analyst reporting to the latter, while engaged to – and keeping his spying secret from – the former, when some dodgy accounts get our hero sent on a mission to Moscow, where he confronts the intimidating industrialist Viktor Cheverin (Kenneth Branagh, who also directs) and a Machiavellian plot to collapse the US economy.
That’s all the pieces set up; cue your bog-standard espionage action thriller that fulfils the relevant criteria – Fancy foreign location? Check. Car chase? Check. Big-ass shootout? Yep. The old ‘break into the room to get the computer files before the bad guy returns’ routine? You betcha – and that’s it. The plot’s so pedestrian, even the big reveal of the bad guys’ ultimate goal is a letdown (seriously, is that it?). And nobody really owns their roles: Knightley is the generic woman who helps the hero be a better man; Costner is the archetypal mentor/father-figure; and Branagh’s too understated as the heel with a Vaguely Communist Accent when some scenery-chewing would be welcome.
He’s better here in the director’s chair, and the first Thor flick proved he can handle action, but his manner is workmanlike, by the numbers. There’s little imagination involved as the plot clunks along from set-piece to set-piece, nearly all of which are lifted from the most obvious sources. That would perhaps be forgivable if this Jack Ryan was a commanding presence like Harrison Ford’s indelible portrayal, but Chris Pine – who actually makes a good young Kirk in the poor Star Trek reboots – just isn’t up to scratch. The film smartly plays on that in the early stages as the inexperienced Ryan gets overwhelmed by fear and adrenalin; it’s less believable later on when he suddenly hardens like steel to fulfil the final act’s requirements. He’s a video game avatar, expecting the player/viewer to fill in the blanks in lieu of any real emotional connection. Even Ben Affleck could manage that much.
While it all moves at a good clip and everything resolves neatly, despite some gaping plot holes, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is virtually devoid of personality. Not smart enough (Knightley’s undergrad Russian lit patter with Branagh is cringeworthy) to hold a candle to the superlative Bourne franchise, not dumb enough to appeal to the cult movie crowd (though one tone-deaf rom-com scene might get a beery room going), it’s squarely middle-of-the-road, weeknight TV fare, hardly deserving of the IMAX release its getting (don’t waste your money on the premium, folks; the slightly larger screen makes no difference at all). It’s probably a good thing Tom Clancy didn’t live long enough to see his most popular creation rendered so, well, average. But maybe I’m asking too much, and what we get here is exactly what The Real America wants.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit opens nationwide on January 24th