Think of Jack Ryan as America’s more human, more interesting James Bond. The British icon’s greatest flaw is having no flaw at all—he is too smooth, too composed, too perfect to the point of blandness. When Daniel Craig finally portrayed James Bond as an agent weathered in skin and spirit in Skyfall, critics hailed it as “the greatest James Bond movie ever.” Perhaps fans are ready for an espionage thriller with more believability, and Jack Ryan provides that—to a certain dose.
Though based on Tom Clancy’s bestselling novel series, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (rated PG-13) deviates from the book and its film predecessors by rebooting his story as a prequel set in the 21st century—young, inexperienced Jack Ryan before he became the Jack Ryan.
It’s Sept. 11, 2001, at the London School of Economics, and a baby-faced Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is taking an afternoon nap with his head propped on a mathematics textbook. He awakens to watch the World Trade Center disintegrate into smoke and rubble on TV. Eighteen months later, Jack’s a Marine on a military helicopter in Afghanistan. The helicopter crashes, but he survives with a broken back. While learning to walk again in a military rehabilitation center, he falls in love with Cathy (Keira Knightley with an American accent), his physical therapist and future wife.
Jack also catches the attention of CIA commander William Harper (Kevin Costner), who is impressed by his patriotism and his half-written college thesis on finance patterns. William recruits Jack to finish his Ph.D. in economics and work undercover for the CIA as a financial analyst.
Ten years later, Jack’s still as fresh-faced as ever, but he’s recovered, engaged, and working as a trader on Wall Street, while covertly monitoring financial activities that might be linked to terrorists. One day he detects strange activity in the global market, and quickly (and correctly) deduces that Russia is plotting a giant investment scheme that may implode the U.S. economy. Jack follows the dots to Viktor Cherevin (director Kenneth Branagh), a Russian businessman who harbors grievances against the United States for the Soviet war in Afghanistan—modern day, modern terrorism, old nemesis.
The CIA assigns Jack to Moscow to audit Cherevin’s protected files, under his established cover at a brokerage firm. Things tailspin from there, and Jack goes from analyst to operations. Ironically, Jack gets less interesting once the “real” action begins. Literally overnight, he transforms from a finance guy stuttering for backup to—well, a tired James Bond typecast. He suddenly develops mad-precise car chase skills, then screeches on a gravity-defying motorcycle dash to save a city from annihilation.
Don’t be surprised to see Pine cast again as Jack Ryan in a sequel. Alec Baldwin, the most-loved Jack Ryan incarnation from the 1990 film The Hunt for Red October, is a tough act to follow, but Pine effortlessly recaptures his character’s amiable blue-eyed charm. Director and co-star Branagh plays a brilliant, chilling, sympathetic Russian villain/patriot who, despite all his heinous crimes, most realistically embodies his humanity. We see too little of Costner as the seasoned CIA veteran William, and we see too much of Knightley as the suspicious fiancée-turned-accomplice.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is an entertaining blockbuster and little more, though it showed more promise in the beginning. It matches the template for a predictable, classic spy thriller: time-ticking explosions, thrilling car chases, damsel in distress, and grand conspiracies. Perhaps the audience still needs a dose of fantastical after all.