You can tell a lot about a film by its name. Sometimes they require you to ingest the full movie before you can understand them. Sometimes they build on a brand while giving a hint at the story. Sometimes they’re just a pair of words tacked on to a possible franchise title because they sound cool.
That would be the case in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, where Jack Ryan (Star Trek’s Chris Pine) is neither a shadow, nor a recruit. The names ends up being reflective of the movie as a whole, which dives deep into a pool of generic tropes, always prioritizing cool factor over logic. This makes the third act especially messy and baffling, but strong performances and a fast pace help to keep you from dwelling too much on the plot.
The film plays fast and loose with realism
As the movie quickly recaps, a young Ryan is pursuing a doctorate in economics when he watches the 9/11 attacks unfold, and subsequently joins the Marines. During a mission in Afghanistan, his helicopter is shot down, leaving him with severe spinal trauma.
After an arduous rehabilitation, Ryan is offered a job in the CIA by William Harper (played by Kevin Costner). Harper takes on a mentorship role similar to that of Admiral James Greer, who was translated from the books in three of the four previous films by James Earl Jones. Flash forward 10 years, and Ryan uncovers something suspicious involving a Russian corporation run by Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh). His secret bosses encourage Ryan to head to Moscow, because no one understands the info (including the audience).
Bafflingly, Ryan’s fiancé Dr. Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley) shows up to surprise him, and of course add the “damsel in distress” factor.
Ryan’s investigation uncovers a plot against the U.S. involving currency manipulation that is both improbable and convoluted, but sounds plausible enough – at least until you think about it. Best not to. The film plays fast and loose with realism, which is both fine and almost expected for a spy thriller.
Pine has enough range to do it all, but it’s disappointing to see the film veer off into a string off predictable events.
Thankfully, Pine is up to the task and well suited for jumping between multiple personalities, ranging from “bumbling analyst” to “adrenaline-fueled avenger” to “action hero.” Pine manages to sell Ryan as terrified by the events he his thrust into, which gives him a refreshing depth for a character in this genre. That depth drains by the end of the film, when Ryan transforms into a stereotypical action hero who drives in high-speed chases, fights in a moving van, and takes it upon himself to save everyone. Pine has enough range to do it all, but it’s disappointing to see the film veer off into a string off predictable events after its fresh opening.
Costner seems to relish the role of Harper, radiating confidence, depth, and mystery while elevating the character from a forgettable supporting character to a highlight of the film. Branagh similarly makes the most out of limited screen time in order to create a memorable and imposing villain. Knightley, however, becomes little more than a walking plot point, while barely hanging on to her American accent by a thread.
Branagh is in his element as a director, even if the script fails him. At just over an hour and 40 minutes, the film has no fat, and Branagh manages to quickly and expertly introduce the characters you need to know. Like the rest of the film though, the first two acts have a different tone from the third, and ultimately that falls on Branagh.
If Paramount has its wish, Shadow Recruit will be the first of a new series of Jack Ryan films, presumably with Pine continuing in the role. The pieces are in place to make that work, at least in front of the lens. Branagh shows flashes of brilliance, but the script just melts as it rushes towards a completely unlikely outcome that feels like it belongs in a different film.
Shadow Recruit brings nothing new to the spy-thriller genre. It sputters and drags itself over the finish line, then thuds to a stop. There isn’t enough tension to really make it memorable, enough humor to make it endearing, or enough action to make it exciting. Strong performances from Costner, Branagh, and especially Pine make Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit a passable, but ultimately flawed reboot of a character we will hopefully see again.