Has ever a hero been rebooted as repeatedly and with little aplomb as Jack Ryan? From Sean Connery-starrer Hunt for the Red October back in 1990 through to the present day, Tom Clancy’s best-known protagonist has grossed more than half a billion dollars.
While this may be a drop in the ocean compared to the Bond franchise, Ryan has had nearly as many faces: Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and now Chris Pine. Pine is a solid if unimaginative choice for the role with his perennially boyish good looks and low-level intensity, and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a refreshingly simple take on the spy genre post-9/11; not as outlandish as the Mission: Impossible series has become and lacking the moral ambiguity of Jason Bourne.
Something of a throwback in this regard, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit resurrects the specter of Russian aggression in a plot that involves stock-market shenanigans and an incipient terrorist attack. A Wall Street compliance offer and secret CIA analyst, Ryan is dispatched to Moscow to investigate irregularities in the accounts of one of his firm’s Russian clients. This brings him into contact with Victor Cherevin, a brutal yet cultured businessman and, like Ryan, a former war hero, played by Kenneth Branagh (also on directorial duties).
An attempt is made on Ryan’s life, the camera alternately leaping and lingering, recalling a similar bathroom-set scene from Casino Royale. Then Ryan’s long-term girlfriend, Cathy (Kiera Knightley), arrives unexpectedly in Moscow. Soon enough, she’s roped into the operation by Ryan’s superior, Harper (Kevin Costner as another would-be father figure, shades of JFK). As Costner says in the trailer’s best line, “This is geopolitics, not couple’s counseling”.
Pine and Knightley share solid chemistry and their relationship gives heft to the spycraft. There’s genuine investment in a dinner sequence in which Ryan acts the boor while Cathy charms Cherevin, giving Ryan a chance to gain vital access to Cherevin’s office across the street. Apart from a few incisive lines about Russia as a corporation, there’s a refreshing lack of commentary. Things unwind towards the end as intelligence gathering replaces spycraft, up until which point the latter-day Cold War vibe – supported by Branagh’s clean, competent direction – is one of the film’s greatest assets.
It’s subtitle may be utterly meaningless, but Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is full of nice touches, like Ryan and Cathy’s little fingers reaching out to touch in the back of a cab. It’s almost a shame that, in light of all the high-profile prestige pics out at the moment, it’ll probably go down like a nuclear submarine.