Silver Screen: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit ***
Jack Ryan is no James Bond.
This is true for several reasons, yet there are similarities between the characters. Bond is a hyperbolic masculine power fantasy created by English writer Ian Fleming, who was a real-deal spy for the British Royal Navy. Fleming may not have dallied with gals named Goodhead and stopped metal-jawed terrorists from launching nerve-gas attacks, but he led covert operations against the Nazis throughout World War II.
Like the dapper Mister Bond, Jack Ryan works for his country’s top intelligence service, the CIA, and like Fleming, Clancy projected himself onto the character. But Clancy was a civilian insurance salesman, and thus his hero is a paper-pushing bureaucrat reluctantly drawn into dangerous fieldwork, beginning in the novel The Hunt for Red October. As far as we can tell, Jack Ryan doesn’t even know anyone named Badhead; he’s an Irish-Catholic family man defined in part by that reluctance— dragged into physical conflict in Patriot Games and sucked into a dirty war in Clear and Present Danger, all the way up to becoming an inadvertent American president in Executive Orders. Clancy was an unabashed technocrat and made Jack Ryan the fantasy projection for middle-aged white-male desk jockeys who also think if they were called suddenly to office, damnit, they’d be forced to be a great Desk Jockey in Chief.
But the main reason the cinematic incarnation of Jack Ryan is no James Bond is because, often, he’s not even Jack Ryan. Several actors have contributed different incarnations of 007, but their particular iterations always pivot around certain fixed traits. It’s what keeps the Bond films slightly static, but also makes them Bond films.
Ryan, on the other hand, is all over the map. Alec Baldwin played him in Red October as an earnest quick thinker mostly subordinate to Sean Connery’s powerful submarine captain. Harrison Ford’s stiff-lipped, grumbling Ryan hewed closest to Clancy’s conception of him in the series’ two best movies, so much so that Ford’s later presidential thriller Air Force One felt like a delightfully loopy riff on Clancy. The character lost any distinguishing traits in the middling Sum of All Fears, where Ben Affleck pretty much played him as Ben Affleck.
With the hero’s name in the title of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, you might think the series reboot would be more character-centric, and it is, but only marginally so. Now played by Star Trek’s Chris Pine, Ryan is reimagined as an economics policy wonk jolted out of academia and into service by the events of September 11. His subsequent bravery earns him some grizzly war wounds and a quick discharge. While recovering at Walter Reed hospital, he meets the beautiful young medical resident who will become his wife (Keira Knightley), as well as Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), the CIA agent who will become his mentor.
This Jack Ryan isn’t so reluctant to become a spy. Harper conscripts him to finish up his economics degree and join a Wall Street firm as a CIA mole investigating money laundering for terrorist organizations. Ryan finds exactly that in Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian plutocrat with a terminal illness who plans to elevate the Motherland’s oil-centric economy by crushing America via coordinated physical and financial attacks. Ryan is ordered to go to Russia on official Wall Street business in order to take a closer look at Cherevin’s organization, and almost immediately finds himself caught up in gunplay and international intrigue.
Branagh, who also directed the movie, plays Cherevin with more ham than evil élan. He’s a second-tier Bond villain, and most of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit plays like the first half of a timid 007 adventure rather than a Clancy-inspired military thriller. Pine’s Ryan does a lot more sneaking into secure buildings to steal passwords and computer info in the dead of night, and other familiar movie spy stuff. But Shadow Recruit is bereft of the grandeur and glee of a Bond film, while also sacrificing the realism and techno-nerd accuracy that gave previous Clancy film adaptations their weight. The plot itself is fairly generic material that could have easily featured any knockoff character in the lead, although that wouldn’t have come with the lucrative promise of a franchise to exploit.
Despite lacking almost any defining features or novel concepts, Shadow Recruit is serviceably entertaining. Branagh is a god-awful action director— the climactic confrontation is incoherently choreographed and sloppily edited— but there’s a baseline genre competence, a couple of thrilling scenes, and Pine is a likeable presence who could certainly carve out an interesting Jack Ryan of his own if the series continues... and if he’s better served by the movie around him.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.