A film review by Craig J. Koban January 24, 2014 


2014, PG-13, 114 mins.


Chris Pine as Jack Ryan  /  Keira Knightley as Cathy Ryan  /  Kevin Costner as William Harper  /  Kenneth Branagh as Viktor Cherevin  /  Gemma Chan as Amy Chan  /  Nonso Anozie as Embee  

Directed by Kenneth Branagh  /  Written by Adam Cozad, David Koepp and Anthony Peckham

I can certainly respect the inherent difficulties in trying to reboot the cinematic Jack Ryan franchise.  

The 30-year-old Tom Clancy envisioned literary character was, after all, a product of Cold War espionage, and now that we are well into the 21st Century and far away from that thawed conflict, trying to make Ryan relevant to a new generation of filmgoers is an unenviable predicament.  Not only that, but Ryan himself has been played by so many different actors since 1990’s (from Alec Baldwin to Harrison Ford to Ben Affleck) that casting yet another actor may have the risk of being fatiguing for audience members. 

Thankfully, JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT works reasonably well as a sleek and generally well-oiled and paced reboot of Clancy’s iconic hero, opting to take the character and thrust him into a post-Cold War world of intrigue.  Under the always astute directorial eye of Kenneth Branagh, the film focuses on a whole new Ryan adventure, not procured from any of Clancy's past novels, and it further opts to tell an origin story that achieves the difficult task of making the character feel real and relatable in our current post-911 socio-political climate while still managing to drum up a memorable Russian baddie that feels like a product of the Cold War.  Even though Branagh’s faculty may not be in the arena of action, he nonetheless knows how to build the quieter character moments to make this thriller simmer with a low key intensity. 

The film opens during the tragic events of September 11, 2001, as a young Ryan (Chris Pine) sees the devastation of it on TV broadcasts while attending Universality in England.  At this point, he decides to devote himself to the war on terror by serving as a marine in Afghanistan, but he suffers a debilitating injury after his helicopter is shot down.  Despite nearly being killed, Ryan does manage to save some of the lives of those on board, which really impresses Commander Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who approaches Ryan – while in rehab – to join the CIA as an undercover analyst in Wall Street.  He initially seems disinterested, but eventually acquiesces to Harper’s request, seeing as he thinks it will be yet another extension to serving his country. 



Ryan then heads to work on Wall Street in a clandestine mission to bring down corporate thieves that may be plotting a conspiracy to attack America again.  He discovers a dastardly Russian based plot to not only destroy the very fabric of the U.S. economy, but to also perpetrate a terrorist attack on American soil as part of it.  Harper sees validity in Ryan’s findings, so he sends in the relative CIA greenhorn into Moscow to investigate the mastermind of the plot, Viktor Cherevin (played with a menacing stillness by Branagh).  Very early on, Cherevin sees Ryan as a dangerous threat, despite him putting up a front of being just a lowly and congenial auditor.  Yet, as things begin to spiral out of control and Ryan learns the darker and twisted rationales behind Cheverin’s hatred of America, the young analyst gets a crash course in escaping gunfire and engaging in bloody fisticuffs as a newly anointed field agent.  That, and his fiancée (Keira Knightley) shows up – completely ignorant to her husband-to-be’s real occupation – to complicate matters even more. 

Again, considering the task at hand of retooling a long dormant film franchise, JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT is on solid footing when it comes to creating a new Jack Ryan character that feels both familiar to audiences that appreciated the old films while placating new viewers that expect a different take on the character.  The screenplay is also quite economical in terms of not wasting vast amounts of time with introductions as well.  We are introduced to the retrofitted Ryan early and bare witness to his rise into the intelligence world rather briskly without sacrificing character development.  Beyond that, the film also crafts a vile antagonist in Cheverin that has deep rooted motives for why he wishes to make America suffer as much as possible, which makes him a more well rounded and frightening adversary for the younger Ryan.  Branagh also has a field day portraying Cheverin at his most engagingly unnerving.  It’s kind of amazing, in retrospect, just how reserved his overall performance is: he makes Cheverin palpably creepy with relative silence and stares.   

Pine is an interesting new addition to the Jack Ryan casting cannon.  He certainly can play youthfully sly and charming characters with the best of them, but the one aspect of his performance is how he never plays up Ryan to tough guy action hero clichés.  Yes, this new Ryan is capable of lethal force (primarily due to his military training), but this Ryan doesn't find combat enjoyable, nor does he take pleasure, for that matter, in killing an opponent.  Pine is quite good at encapsulating Ryan’s rookie temperament, his cocksure intelligence, his relative uncertainty and fear in the field, and relays the plausible level of shock that he experiences when he makes his first kill on assignment.  Pine knows that the key here is to not play Ryan as a Jason Bourne-lite persona; this retooled Ryan feels convincingly susceptible – emotionally and physically – when facing insurmountable tasks. 

The rest of the cast is uniformly decent as well.  Knightley brings a considerable amount of poise and confidence playing what’s essentially a distraught wife role that later becomes a target as part of the villain’s quest to one-up Ryan.  Kevin Costner is coldly stoic, composed, and authoritative in his mentor role; he’s been reliably solid as of late in supporting performances, which is a good turn for the actor at the advancing stage of his career.  My only real beef with Branagh’s film is that he stages too many of the action sequences with dizzying editing and far too many micro-cuts, which seems like a rookie mistake for such a veteran directorial talent like him (thankfully, the character building scenes, based primarily on two people eyeing each other up for their respective weakness, are some of the film’s sublime highlights).  That, and the film’s action packed climax seems to have one too many lame and tired action film conventions for its own good (massive bombs with digital countdown clocks…been-there, done-that).   

Still, I came out respecting and enjoying this new entry in the Jack Ryan film catalogue, despite a few of its missteps.  The film has a sprawling look and feel – globetrotting the world over from Russia to London to New York – but still manages to maintain a lived-in and understated allure.  The film also provides for a compelling origin arc that breathes new life into an old character, which is also a thankless task.  As far as geopolitical thrillers go, JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT does not really totally reinvent the wheel of the genre, but it’s consummately made, well structured, and crisply paced (it’s kind of a perfect length at 114 minutes) to the point of not wearing out its welcome.  Like good reboots, the film made me compelled – by the end credits - to see the further film adventures of its hero, which is a good thing. 

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