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Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Premise: A reimagining of the character from Tom Clancy’s spy novels. Set in the present day, a wounded Marine (Chris Pine) is recruited by the CIA and uncovers a plot to crash the US economy.

What Works: The primary task for the filmmakers of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is to take a Cold War-era character and find a way to adapt him and his franchise for the contemporary era. The filmmakers have accomplished that, keeping the basics of the Jack Ryan backstory while updating it for today’s audience. The picture opens with Ryan in college, learning of the 9/11 attack as it takes place. When filmmakers use the 9/11 attack or other real life tragedies as a dramatic device it risks coming across as crass but it’s done tastefully and it serves a purpose, as Ryan is motivated to enlist in the Marines and is shipped to Afghanistan, where he is injured and must subsequently recover. This gives the character a backstory that is credible and meaningful to the audience. Another successful aspect of updating the material is found in the way the film links terrorism with economics. The terror plot of Shadow Recruit is not simply a bombing but a coordinated effort to synchronize a violent attack with stock market manipulation and create a panic that will result in a global economic collapse. In this respect, Shadow Recruit is not just post-9/11 but also a piece of recession cinema and the combination of a terrorist bombing with economic consequences suggests a plot that is quite relevant for the contemporary audience. Shadow Recruit also benefits from a very strong cast. Jack Ryan is played by Chris Pine and the actor brings to this role the earnest and blue collar qualities that worked so well for him in the part of Captain Kirk in the 2009 reboot of Star Trek. Keira Knightley is cast as Pine’s love interest and the two are a convincing on-screen couple and their relationship gives the action scenes some additional dramatic weight. (Knightley, who is a British actress, does an American accent convincingly.) As an espionage actioner, Shadow Recruit is sufficiently exciting. None of the set pieces are ground breaking but the chases and fight scenes hold up with most anything else in the genre.

What Doesn’t: Fans of Tom Clancy’s books or of earlier film adaptations of Clancy’s novels may not recognize Jack Ryan as he has been imagined for this film. The original conception of Ryan worked so well because he was not a superspy. As presented in Clancy’s books, Ryan was an analyst for the CIA who primarily spent his workday at a desk but circumstances would push him into the field and ultimately thrust him into adventures. The unlikely quality of his stories was a key part of what made him an engaging hero. The Jack Ryan of Shadow Recruit is less like the character of Clancy’s novels and much more reminiscent of Jason Bourne and James Bond. What the filmmakers have created generally works on screen and will play for a younger demographic but it may alienate fans of the source material. As an agent, Ryan grows suddenly and by leaps and bounds, going from a disoriented newbie to a hardened veteran in literally a matter of hours. The plotting is also less than airtight. An attempt is made on Ryan’s life early in his visit to Russia but killing him makes no sense and the way in which the terrorist plot is uncovered involves a lot of creative leaps. The characters also hop from continent to continent very easily and very quickly, traveling from Russia to America seemingly in minutes. To be fair, these inconsistencies are frequent features of espionage thrillers and Shadow Recruit is no more or less guilty of flimsy plotting than a lot of similar films.

Bottom Line: It is clear that the goal of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was to lay the foundation for a new series of films and that’s been accomplished. It isn’t especially memorable but Shadow Recruit is a fine reimagining of the character and this franchise.

Episode: #476 (February 2, 2014)