Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst/hero Jack Ryan returns to the screen in a workmanlike if unoriginal and uninspiring reboot, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.”
Hard-core fans of espionage thrillers will recognize it as on a par with the least of the Jason Bourne films, sort of “Bond Lite,” a prequel about how Jack Ryan wasn’t just some mild-mannered numbers cruncher and desk jockey when he first joined the agency. But director Kenneth Branagh, his new Ryan (Chris Pine) and co-stars Kevin Costner as Jack’s handler and Keira Knightley as the woman Jack hides his true career from, make sure that it’s never less than efficient and reasonably entertaining.
This Ryan was an economics student in Britain when 9/11 happened, a smart cookie who enlisted in the Marines, was crippled in combat and met his lady love (Knightley) while in rehab. Costner plays Harper, a mysterious Navy commander.
“I’m in the CIA,” he whispers, to Jack’s amusement.
Harper recruits Jack to be a CIA agent working (illegally) on Wall Street, sniffing around his bank for shady terrorist deposits. Clancy never would have committed that sort of basic violation of the CIA charter, but hey, a Brit directed, so what can you do? And playing up Ryan’s military background makes his ability to handle himself in life-or-death brawls less surprising than the Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford versions of the character. This guy is closer to Liam Neeson’s “Taken” man of “particular skills” than a “Three Days of the Condor” fish out of water.
Jack gets wind of gigantic Russian holdings of U.S. currency, holdings that can only do us harm if they sell them all at once. So Harper ships his desk jockey to Moscow to pry the truth out of Russian oligarch Viktor Cherevin, played by Branagh.
“They aren’t a country, they’re a corporation,” Harper gripes, a lefty sentiment the conservative Clancy also never would have approved. But he would have liked having the Russians plot the downfall of capitalism through terror and market manipulation.
There’s a ticking clock to the proceedings. The fiancée thinks Jack is cheating on her, she gets mixed up in his business and we get a taste of Knightley in cocktail wear in sexy, glitzy Moscow. Branagh does his best hissing, no-lips Russian villain, one who answers to former ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov as a Kremlin insider.
Working in the film’s favor are the performances. Knightley does an American accent, and everybody has a great rapport with everybody else — Costner with Pine, Pine with Knightley, Knightley with Branagh. It’s a movie of romantic and dramatic close-ups of actors in dialogue scenes, jumpy, jerky photography edited into a blur in the action beats.
Working against it: that famed Clancy precision, the technology that never fails, the tradecraft that has spies prepared for any contingency. And sadly, once it breaks that spell of omnipotence, the movie turns even more predictable with car chases, shootouts, a manic hunt for terror suspects.
“Shadow Recruit” is a January movie, which lowers expectations considerably. If they’d had much hope for it, the film would have merited a Christmas or late spring release. That said, Branagh and company keep up appearances with a thriller that works mainly because all of its parts — locations, fights, plot twists — are well-worn from the thrillers they’ve been in before.