It’s been over eleven years since John Patrick “Jack” Ryan last saw life on the silver screen, a hiatus that turned out to be exactly what the franchise needed to distance itself from the misguided attempt at rebooting the series in the 2002 adaptation of The Sum of All Fears (in which Ben Affleck was (at the time) miscast as the titular CIA analyst), but stay true to the character as originally created by Tom Clancy. And thanks to the youthful maturity of Chris Pine and the kinetic direction (and performance) of Kenneth Branagh, the geopolitical thrills that made the series so gripping in the first three films are resurrected with a blaze of taut excitement in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
Once again rebooting the franchise by establishing the origins of Jack Ryan within the present day political spectrum, the filmmakers are able to introduce the title character to a new audience while giving Chris Pine the chance to define him in his own image (much like Daniel Craig did for James Bond in Casino Royale). And though some of this back story (including Ryan’s decision to enter the military and his recovery from a spinal injury incurred after a helicopter crash in Afghanistan) are a little rushed, Pine conveys just the right amount of emotional turmoil to keep us connected to him and feel the dilemma behind the choices he’ll eventual have to make.
In his turn as director in the Jack Ryan franchise, Kenneth Branagh captures just the right balance between emotional resonance and frantic energy, keeping the thrills tense, the action believable and the romance light and convincing. When Ryan must keep Viktor Cherevin (Branagh) distracted while he breaks into Cherevin’s office to download files from his servers, the passion, tension, anger, fear and intrigue are captured with such fluidity, it makes the pouring of wine seem like pouring honey.
In addition to that, Branagh gives another top-notch villainous performance, seething with intelligence and anger hidden only by his terse lips. He is menacing because he’s subdued and cautious. On the flip side, Keira Knightley shines like the first star in the night sky as Ryan’s girlfriend Cathy Muller, radiating her love with a graceful sense of honor and respect. She may fear her relationship is falling apart, but she holds it all together with her brave and unconditional presence and radiant smile (which could push anyone to do anything, really).
I will say, though, that the first act does get a little tiresome in developing secrets upon secrets; it made it seem far too confusing. What is clear is that after being recruited into a shadow agency of the CIA by Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), Ryan is tasked to go undercover on Wall Street to help locate any possible terrorist threats. When he finds some suspicious financial behavior from a Russian entity, Ryan must head to Moscow to uncover Viktor’s plot to destroy America’s financial standing.
The point when Ryan arrives in Moscow is when the plot — and the film as a whole — finds its voice. As each new secret unfolds, and the overall plot becomes clearer (including a debrief where Harper asks Ryan for the complete rundown of the plot in layman’s terms), I was able to settle in and found piecing the puzzle together to be quite smart, interesting and overall frightening.
Not only is the prospect of a foreign entity propping up global financial institutions to watch them crumble after a terrorist attack an intriguing premise, the fact that it could all very well be true — and happen in real life at any moment — gives the film a much more haunting feel, one used to provoke the audience to root for Ryan to succeed.
It’s in Chris Pine’s performance as Jack Ryan, then, that needs to help ground the entire piece—and he doesn’t disappoint. Standing tall against formidable heavyweights like Branagh and Costner can’t be the easiest thing to do, but Pine accomplishes this feat with flare and precision. He embodies a youthful, independent spirit, yet has a contained fear just itching to break free during the chaos of his mission. Ryan is very green, having been only an analyst thus far in his career, so being thrown into such extreme circumstances could very well make him fold quite easily. But he’s also a marine, so he can’t help but rely on his instincts when dealing with the unknown, even when it is all brand new to him.
Nothing showcases this human nature better than after Ryan first arrives in Russia. He is abruptly attacked in his hotel room, and though he hasn’t seen any action for ten years, he is able to get the upper hand and kill his attacker. The shock and fear of it all then takes hold, bringing out his vulnerability in the inability to think straight or control the involuntary shake in his hands.
The film isn’t perfect (some early scenes tend to drag a little too much, and yet others seem cut together with the frenetic pace of a meat-grinder), but in this critic’s humble opinion, both Chris Pine and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit are the best of the franchise so far, and to have Pine return for another go-around (if not several, alongside Branagh’s direction) of political thrills would be all right with me.
My Grade: A-
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