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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit Review: International Espionage at its Blandest

Jack Ryan posterJames Bond. Ethan Hunt. Jason Bourne. Jack Ryan? If something feels slightly off to you about putting Jack Ryan on that list, then you’re not alone. On the surface, he seems like he should fit right in. He’s just as globe trotting and embedded in international espionage as any of them, has had more movies than Bourne and Hunt, and has an actor retention rate very similar to Bond’s. The one thing that actually separates Ryan from these others is that he has never been an on-the-ground, point man type of character. In fact, while the other three are jumping cars, defusing bombs, and performing head shots, Jack Ryan has always been at his most comfortable and his best when standing back from the action, planning and deducing. Unfortunately, this is a lesson not easily learned by Hollywood, and a lesson most certainly not learned by Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.

Shadow Recruit essentially reboots the story of Jack Ryan, spending a good chunk of time showing his early career and how he first found himself in the cross-hairs of the intelligence community. Most of this background plays as truncated and unnecessary (especially the dwelling on a back injury that the film  forgets about whenever convenient.) Having established this history, we are dumped into the main story, involving shady banking practices which might be something even more sinister. Ryan is tasked with heading to Russia to ferret out the threat (despite having zero field experience) because he is apparently the only person in the CIA who understands banking terminology. What follows is pretty standard thriller fare, with some intimidating bad guys, a few action sequences, and a hero putting the pieces together as he goes. Oh, and he’s got a girlfriend (Keira Knightly) who tags along for absolutely no good reason.

I suppose to really discuss this film, you do have to at least touch on the previous iterations. By and large, Alec Baldwin’s The Hunt for Red October is considered the best Jack Ryan film (which it is.)  Harrison Ford’s Clear and Present Danger comes in a close second, with Ford’s Patriot Games coming in a distant third, and Ben Affleck’s The Sum of All Fears coming in a very, very distant fourth. These rankings are relevant because the types of movies they are have a very distinct correlation. In the best Ryan movies, he has the least amount of action. In Red October, his entire conflict is intellectual, save for one brief gunfire exchange. In Clear and Present Danger, he stays mostly action free until the climactic sequence. In Patriot Games and Sum of All Fears, he is suddenly in the middle of the action itself. So, where does Shadow Recruit rank on this scale of Intellect vs. Action? Not very high, unfortunately. Despite constantly reminding us that Ryan is no field agent, the CIA has seemingly no other agents that could possibly do any of this highly dangerous work, leaving Ryan right in the thick of everything, even when it makes almost no sense for him to be there.

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The Best Parts

Jack Ryan: Analyst – As the fourth person to play the character, Chris Pine steps into the shoes of Ryan quite well in Shadow Recruit. He’s charming enough, and his intelligence and wit always seem organic and rarely forced. In fact, it’s during the moments when Ryan’s intelligence is front and center that the film excels. As a character, his ability to analyze data, form theories, and make deductions about complex political motives and intentions is his strength and highlight. The scenes where we actually get to see him do this are fun and make the character into something more than just another generic movie spy, at least for that scene.

Kenneth Branagh: Actor – Branagh does double duty on this film as both the director and acting as the primary antagonist. His villainous role, as Russian banking magnate Viktor Cherevin, is about as much of a scenery chewing role as these kinds of movies offer. Affecting a thick accent, Cherevin’s very first scene involves him beating the crap out of a doctor giving him a shot. But Branagh chooses to temper that same scenery chewing, restraining it in certain situations, letting it bubble right under the surface. The result is a fairly interesting villain that deserved to be in a better movie.

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The Worst Parts

Jack Ryan: Spy – Ryan’s essential catchphrase, “I’m just an analyst!” is fully utilized in this film, but just like his superior (played with a bland steeliness by Kevin Costner), the film ignores his protests. Now, the concept of a fish out of water action hero is nothing new, nor is it necessarily a bad thing. Shadow Recruit’s real sin is having him be so damn competent at all of it. Despite repeatedly saying he has no field experience, little combat training, and a serious back injury, Ryan is constantly shoved into action sequences within which he seems to forget all that and behave like any professional spy would. He breaks into a building with all the finesse of Hunt or Bond, he runs down a van on a motorbike with all the skill of Bourne. Then he goes right back to claiming that he’s “just an analyst.”

Kenneth Branagh: Director – Branagh’s directorial background lays mostly in Shakespearean style English melodrama. This served him fairly well until he hit Thor, which he directed in a perfectly adequate, if uninspired, manner. At least in that film the Norse-like Asgardians lent themselves to the style. Here, though, that style is nowhere to be found; in fact, style of any shape or size at all is nowhere to be found. The film is glossy, slick, standard Hollywood fare, with no creative inclination in any direction.  It seems to play it safe at every turn, presenting the story at face value with as few quirks as possible. The result is pure vanilla.

A Post 9/11 Tale – The opening moments of the film use 9/11 as a sort of catalyst for Ryan’s development, but I can’t help but feel that it casts an even larger shadow over the film than that. Previous to 9/11, spy thrillers were complicated. Cold War hostilities where everyone was manipulating everyone else and true motivations were hard to come by were the standard for the spy thrillers, and that is the world where most of the original Jack Ryan stories take place. Our post 9/11 world is not as complex, at least in the views of the resulting movies. Villains simply want to destroy, and in as big a way as possible. The gray areas are distilled down into “them” vs. “us.” And so it is in this movie, where the intentions boil down to “Huge Attack,” with a motivations that is simply “To Destroy America.” That kind of reductionism is fine for a flat out action movie, but in a spy thriller, complexity is king, and this film just doesn’t have it.

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I think it’s safe to say that the newest iteration of Jack Ryan does not stack up. In a film where nothing is ventured and where no risks are taken, a spectacularly average film has to be the result. But worse than that, the film doesn’t know who it wants Ryan to be, and so he ends up being no one special. He has a Bourne style bathroom fight that was done better by Bourne. He has an Ethan Hunt style break-in that was done better in the Mission Impossible films. Almost everything he does is reiterative of another film, and none of it is done quite as well as its originator. And, really, if Jack Ryan can’t offer anything more or do anything better, then why would I watch him over any other movie spy.  I can think of at least three.

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