Having never cracked open a Tom Clancy novel or seen any of the films featuring the titular hero, I watched this latest reincarnation with a willingness to embrace whatever Jack Ryan wanted to throw my way. And now that I’ve seen it and we’re a few years out, I only wish the Chris-Pine-as-Jack-Ryan tease would have lasted a little longer. A tight spy thriller that doesn’t try to outdo itself, Shadow Recruit keeps you on edge to the very end.
One reason is that our hero is not cut from the same cloth as steelier spies like James Bond or Jason Bourne or even Harrison Ford’s version of the same character. Instead, Pine sheds the bravado for a younger, untested Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst working undercover as a compliance officer on Wall Street to identify terrorist funding. His riskiest encounters happen during shadowy cinema screenings when he passes information to his handler. He is unprepared to step into the front lines of the spy world but is forced to after noticing suspicious activity on a major Russian account. Ryan goes to Moscow to investigate further but must improvise his first kill before he puts down his suitcase.
That he’s so out of his depth makes him an appealing and even reassuring lead character. Our screens are filled with so many cocky superheroes these days that Ryan’s fear and insecurity only emphasize his intelligence and humility. After he drowns his would-be assassin, Ryan fumbles his way through a call to his CIA contact and, while he’s waiting for the cleanup crew to arrive, surveys the scene with blanket shock. This isn’t what he signed up for, and in his uncertainty, you can easily see how the whole spy game might go south. But then again, this is also a guy who joined the Marines post-9/11, midway through his Ph.D at the London School of Economics. While recovering from severe injuries suffered during a helicopter explosion, in which he rescued two of his men, he rebuffs an initial offer to join the CIA because of moral objections (this being the Bush era). Pine, proving that he is equally skilled as the anti-Captain Kirk, creates a character who you trust will pull his shit together when it’s all on the line, even if Ryan has his own doubts.
This shot of realism pairs well with the Russian context, which might have seemed old hat just a few years ago. Ryan doesn’t just uncover financial dishonesty but a far more devastating plot to collapse markets and sow chaos for more terror attacks. There’s an eerie prescience to the storyline in this age of Trump. With persistent reports of Russian efforts to disrupt Western democracies, you could imagine a duplicitous Viktor Cheverin character (a delightfully cold Kenneth Branagh) lurking in the background. Though he leans towards parody – our introduction to him involves opera, drugs, and someone getting their head kicked in, Cheverin controls most of the assets in question and effectively draws the U.S. government into a daring two part chase. The first ends up being a game of cat and mouse that darts between the streets of Moscow, his glass bunker of an office, and a fancy restaurant across the way. The second is on American soil, right in the heart of Wall Street.
Grounding all this action is seasoned officer Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who recruits Ryan and then shadows him in Moscow. His ability to keep unflappably cool and maintain an even inside voice contrasts with his edgy protégé. Costner, ageless and dignified, disappears into the role like a good spy should. Meanwhile, Keira Knightley, playing Cathy, Ryan’s doctor/girlfriend, does quite the opposite. Though the relationship could benefit from more heat between the two actors, that doesn’t lessen her performance, and she really lights up when her character crashes into Moscow like a woman scorned. Cathy is just this side of a nagging stereotype and is saved by Knightley’s resolve and occasional glower. After Ryan again pleads with her to marry him, she looks at him like he’s been asking the wrong question this whole time.
Prod: Mace Neufeld, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, David Barron, Mark Vahradian
Dir: Kenneth Branagh
Writer: Adam Cozad, David Koepp
Cast: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Len Kudrjawizki, Alec Utgoff, Elena Velikanova, Peter Andersson, Nonso Anozie, Gemma Chan
Time: 105 min
Lang: English, some Russian
Country: United States