Chris Pine meets and greets Kevin Costner in "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit." Credit: Paramount Pictures
‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ Director: Kenneth Branagh Stars: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley Rating: PG-13 3 (out of 5) Globes
In the Reagan and Bush I eras, the late Tom Clancy made a pretty penny spinning Cold War tales of intrigue involving purportedly scary foreign nations. His black-and-white worldview hasn’t translated well post-9/11, when America’s hands have been revealed to be less clean than once assumed. “The Sum of All Fears,” the last film about Clancy’s generically-named CIA hero Jack Ryan — after the likes of "The Hunt for Red October" and "Patriot Games" — had the misfortune to unleash a 9/11-esque plot only a handful of months after 9/11 itself.
The opening of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” a reboot that’s also (of course) an origin story, suggests the makers haven’t learned their lesson. In the first scene, Ryan (Chris Pine) is just an average college student who finds himself mobilized after watching the World Trade Center collapse live on TV. Proving the film’s truly stuck in the past, Ryan grows up to battle Russians. Wait: The Russians? What era is this?
But this is a false alarm. After a questionable opening that could have easily been excised, “Jack Ryan” settles into being the film equivalent of an anonymous airport novel. It’s short on offense, even when its climax returns to New York’s Financial District for some terrorist-thwarting thrills. The plot turns on Ryan’s first big job, one invented from whole cloth, not from one of the 17 Ryan novels. Despite being a CIA agent, he’s spent a decade undercover as a Wall Street stooge. When he starts suspecting some shady underdoings from a Russian businessman (Kenneth Branagh), he’s enlisted on his first big time job, which proves hairier than he'd like.
In addition to playing a creepily placid and cold-blooded baddie who can still talk poetry, Branagh directed the picture. As with “Thor,” he’s less an outside-the-box choice than straight-up odd. It’s not easy to detect his specific personality, which in some ways is a good thing. "Jack Ryan" is anonymous, slick work, devoid of the show-off canted angles and the drawn-out, keyed-up melodrama that torpedoed the likes of “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” The movie is clipped, cool, steadily-paced and modestly engaging.
That’s not to say it’s free of any personality. What Branagh (or someone) does bring to it is an emphasis on Ryan's recognizable humanity. He’s no superhero. When he gets into his first fight, he’s clumsy, visibly panicking, in over his head. He’s not a complete everyman; he becomes rather good at ass-kicking/car-chasing/bomb-thwarting rather quickly. But he still freaks out in the heat of the moment.
The inclusion of a pesky girlfriend (Keira Knightley) — who excitedly worms her way into the part of Ryan’s life he’s understandably kept her out of — is bothersome, though Knightley is game enough, especially once she gets drunk and starts flirting with Branagh’s baddie, that she’s almost not a sexist stereotype. Even better is Kevin Costner, who plays Ryan’s mentor as a gruff, wry, still active aging agent, who cracks pissy jokes and would walk off with the picture if he was allowed to be in more of it. Personality goes a long way, and there’s enough of it in “Jack Ryan” to make you wish for sequels that had even less to do with the increasingly badly dated Clancy sources.