Ahhh, the left over goodness of January. The month where every movie goer’s hopes are so low that even the most banal film can seem like a worthy excuse to head to the theater. That’s where an established name like Jack Ryan can really pull folks in without doing too much.
It’s not like Jack Ryan is a banal character. The Tom Clancy spy has been in some of the best spy thrillers ever made, but that was over two decades ago and his last foray into cinema, The Sum of All Fears, didn’t exactly ignite the character back to life.
Enter another reboot of the character. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is the first of his films to turn the name into a franchise, which is what they studio is clearly attempting to do. The question is can they make a 90s hero into a new millennium franchise or is there a reason the movie was released in January.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Release Date: January 17, 2014
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is definitely a reboot from almost every perspective. The character takes many of his cues from the books (economics major, injured in helicopter crash, recruited by CIA), but is fully updated. We open with the 9/11 attacks, which cause Ryan to join the military instead of finishing his economics degree at Cambridge. Upon becoming injured he returns home where he falls in love with his physical therapist, Cathy Meuller (Kiera Knightly). While in recovery he is approached by CIA agent Thomas Hopper (Kevin Costner) to work for the CIA while also being an analyst on Wall Street.
Everything is going fine until Ryan discovers some Russians smuggling money in order to crash the U.S. economy. Of course no one else can understand the complex issues involved so he heads to Russia and becomes a field agent. Things get a bit more complicated as Cathy shows up and a terror plot is unfolded. It’s an impressive plot that somehow manages to hit almost every hot button issue in American politics including terrorism, the recession and oil dependency. Quite a bit for a January spy thriller to bite off, and unfortunately it eventually shows.
Shadow Recruit actually opens pretty well. The first quarter of the film is tense as Ryan finds himself whisked away on a mission he never wanted and completely unsure of who to trust. An opening fight in a fancy hotel room’s bathroom is rough and tumble and director Kenneth Branagh does a fantastic job of channeling, but not copying, the tried and true Bourne fight style into a slightly smoother presentation. The issues with the film start to unfold as the bigger picture expands. As long as the movie is focused on the details it stays taught and smart enough to keep your attention, but the second it opens up into a bigger action movie it begins to uncoil.
The end of the film is a desperate scramble to stop a terrorist attack that feels forced and poorly scripted. In order to connect the spy thriller we were just watching to the action movie that the end of the film wants to be we’re forced into one of the most unbelievable and logic twisting scenes of exposition I’ve seen in a long time. This is then followed by a piecemeal action sequence that had me wondering if the continuity expert had been fired from the film. Most of the character suspense is completely removed as trust issues and motivations turn into black and white heroic actions. The tense spy stuff that made the film work in the beginning is dumped, and Jack Ryan becomes a pretty bland action star.
It’s too bad because Pine plays a pretty good Ryan when he isn’t rushing through the conclusion of the film. He and Knightly play well off each other and even better of Kenneth Branagh’s villain. The real let down is Costner, whose character is never given the chance to be anything but an excuse for exposition. As Ryan’s handler there could have been some amazing interplay between the two characters as Ryan is forced into field work he doesn’t want to do, but instead the film settles for a tepid father figure relationship that devolves into almost nothing by the end of the movie.
All that being said, you could do a whole lot worse in January. While the conclusion of the film may not be up to snuff, there is enough present to be enjoyable (just maybe not full ticket price enjoyable). Hopefully the film does just well enough to encourage the studio to make a better product next time around. Chris Pine as Jack Ryan in a true spy thriller could do marvels if the first half of this movie is any indication.