Posted on Friday, January 17th, 2014 by Angie Han
The best that can be said about Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is that it’s mostly competent. The worst that can be said about it is that it’s nothing more than that. This is a slick, shiny film without an ounce of personality or depth. Its protagonist may hold a doctorate degree from the London School of Economics, but the film around him is the cinematic equivalent of the preppy frat boy who does just enough homework to pull a C- average.
The problems start with its hero. On paper, Jack Ryan looks like the consummate all-American hero. He’s brilliant (he has that Ph.D), personable (he sets up his co-workers on a date), and unquestionably courageous (he signs up for the Marines after 9/11). He’s athletic enough to fend off a surprise attack and, because he’s played by the blond-haried, blue-eyed Chris Pine, handsome enough to land Keira Knightley as a fiancee.
As portrayed in the film, however, he has all the depth of a paper doll. Pine tries his best, but the script by Adam Cozad and David Koepp offers him no help. Jack has no personality, no motivation, no sense of humor, no character arc, and no witty lines. Instead, he does the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, explaining his decisions with banalities like “If I’m going to serve, I’m going to serve.” Jack Ryan is so boring, in fact, that the only time he shows any personality at all is when he’s adopting affectations of someone else’s character as part of his mission.
This laziness extends to the rest of the film. Kevin Costner and Keira Knightley aren’t much more compelling, unless you count the novelty factor of seeing Knightley adopt an American accent. Branagh’s villainous Viktor Cherevin fares slightly better, presumably because that’s one perk of being the boss. (Branagh also directed.) At the very least, there are attempts to flesh him out via a tragic backstory and a flirty side. In the end, though, his tragic backstory doesn’t make much sense and his flirty side doesn’t generate much heat.
And then there’s the main plot. Like the rest of the film, it feels less like a creative endeavor than a rote attempt to hit all the expected marks. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit serves as as a prequel to the existing Jack Ryan films, and as such it opens with Jack on a college campus in 2001. Upon learning about the 9/11 attack, he drops out of his Ph.D. program, joins the Marines, is injured in a helicopter crash, and is sent to Walter Reed to recover.
There, he meets the two supporting characters who’ll stay with him for the rest of the film: William Harper (Costner), the CIA agent who recruits him, and Cathy (Knightley), the love of his life. Fast-forward a couple of years, and he’s working as an analyst on Wall Street while doing double duty as an undercover agent for the CIA. In his day job, he uncovers some suspicious activity out of Russia. So he’s sent by the CIA there to investigate.
The trip turns out to be a big turning point for Ryan, the moment when he goes from being a desk jockey to being the international man of mystery we’ve seen in other films. One of the film’s few interesting scenes takes place shortly after he checks into his hotel in Russia, when he’s unexpectedly shot at by a henchman of Cheverin’s (played by Game of Thrones‘ Nonso Anozie). Ryan ducks, kicking off a fight scene that lasts several minutes and destroys the room.
Physically, he handles himself well enough to kill the bad guy, but psychologically, he’s all shook up. Ryan is red-faced and out of breath, and so jittery he almost shoots at the shower before throwing the gun away from himself in a panic. When he finally gets hold of Harper, he shakily asks whether he’ll ever get over the awful feeling of killing a man. Harper gravely replies that “If you’re lucky, you get past it.”
At this point, I got my hopes up that Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit could be salvageable yet. There’s a fascinating story to be told here, about a relatively ordinary man (albeit one extraordinary enough to catch the CIA’s attention) thrust into extreme circumstances. Alas, this is still Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, so the moment is quickly forgotten about and Jack ultimately suffers no psychological repercussions from the experience whatsoever.
Having gotten over his first kill in record time, Jack then discovers that Cheverin has masterminded a plot to sink the U.S. dollar and launch the second Great Depression. He, Harper, and their CIA colleagues devise a plan to hack into Cheverin’s office computer and stop his nefarious dealings, presumably because every action thriller nowadays requires at least one scene in which the hero is frantically pounding nonsense code into a laptop.
This eventually leads to a car chase in a major city and a couple of fistfights, because action movies need those, too. Check and check. These might be marginally exciting if Branagh had a particularly good sense for directing action, but he doesn’t. The car chases are unmemorable, and the hand-to-hand combat is shot in an annoying close-up that makes it impossible to discern who’s doing what to whom and when. The stakes should be high at this point, since the fate of the whole world is up in the air, but because we already know how it’s all going to end, they really aren’t.
Despite all the cutting-edge technology on display, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is really a throwback. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen heroes this uncomplicated, or villains this Russian. There’s also something a tiny bit bittersweet in the way it tries to rewrite the last few years of American history. In Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the only person who can prevent another 9/11 and another Great Recession is a patriotic, square-jawed hero — one who happens to be a Wall Street banker, no less.
Or rather, there might be if the film had a heart at all. Perhaps I spoke too soon about Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit being retro, because what it really feels like is a big-budget Hollywood thriller from a future in which we’ve outsourced all our creative work to machines. While Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit dutifully meets all the requirements, it never seems to occur to Branagh to ever go above and beyond them. The movie is too smooth to be truly terrible, but maybe that’s the problem. A few sticky moments and some rough edges could’ve gone a long way toward making this feel less generic.
/Film rating: 4.0 out of 10.0