“Jack Ryan” is not Bourne again

By Kyle Garrett, staff writer

    It’s appropriate that “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” came out right after the nominees for this year’s Academy Awards were announced. There is a marked contrast between movies with actual merit and those that result from the old habits of studios’ current tendencies to cynically dredge up any brand name character in hopes that they will become the next yearly mega franchise.

It typifies the cycle movie releases these days have fallen into: fun blockbusters are released in summer, serious dramas and Oscar bait in the fall, and the rest are dumped into theatres in the winter months when award nominations are over.

“Shadow Recruit” isn’t Jack Ryan’s first trip to the silver screen. The late Tom Clancy’s CIA agent has been played by Alec Baldwin in “The Hunt for Red October,” Harrison Ford in “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger” and Ben Affleck in “The Sum of All Fears.”

But this version, directed by Kenneth Branagh, who is known for films such as “Thor” and “Henry V,” tries too hard to be a start to the next Jason Bourne series while simultaneously paying tribute to the original books. In the process it manages to be nothing but boring.

    Chris Pine stars as Jack Ryan in this 21st century reboot of his origin story (because of course it’s a modern-day reboot). Ryan is a carefree economics major studying in London when the 9/11 attacks occur and are accompanied by a dream sequence full of debris and ominous rumbling. This leads him to his decision to turn into a Captain America-like figure.

One two-year timeskip later and he’s a Marine in Afghanistan dragging two of his buddies from a helicopter wreck despite his broken back. This lands him in a military medical center where he meets doctor Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley) and veteran CIA agent William Harper (Kevin Costner). Muller eventually becomes Ryan’s fiancée while Harper, impressed by the helicopter incident, barely waits for Ryan to be done with physical therapy before recruiting him into the shadowy world of international espionage.

Ryan starts as the CIA’s inside man on Wall Street, working as a financial analyst, telling white lies to his girlfriend and keeping an eye out for signs of people funding terrorism. However, it isn’t long before he stumbles onto a plot by Viktor Cherevin (Branagh) to destroy America’s economy, bring the country to its knees and ride into the sunset, twirling his moustache the whole way.

Tom Clancy and his novels, including the ones about his political mouthpiece and wish-fulfillment avatar Jack Ryan, never moved on from the Cold War. So of course even in the modern day all Russians are ruthless maniacs chomping at the bit to destroy America.

Ryan pursues Cherevin to Moscow, where he finds himself in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse and has to prove he can make it as a field agent with no room for error.

With a careful hand this could have been an interesting spy thriller or at least something other than generic, but the story seems distilled from half the spy movies ever and the overall product feels flat and lifeless.

The movie revolves around three action set pieces: a Bourne-esque fight with the entire set being used as a weapon, a “follow the GPS” chase and a car chase. None of these end up having any punch. Though Branagh clearly has fun chewing the scenery in a horrific Russian accent, his directing lacks any of the style and flair of past efforts. He fails to make any attempt to be more than bare-bones and functional and does not adapt at all to the screenplay which takes an end-run around all the Clancy books and goes nowhere. He does not even bother getting much of a performance out of his cast.

Knightley does a serviceable job but is given nothing to do in the film. Her character is treated as essentially a plot device and possession of Ryan’s who just suspects him of cheating, follows him to Moscow for little reason and flirts with Viktor. At least she’s better than Pine, a lead actor who has absolutely zero screen presence. Between this and the Abrams “Star Trek” movies, he seems to be building a career for himself by taking iconic characters and making them as bland and sleep-inducing possible. Not much would be lost if the metaphorical plank of wood on screen were replaced with a literal one dressed in the same clothes.

This is a film with no apparent purpose. The younger fans it was hoping to win over won’t be impressed by it repeating every beat from every recent espionage thriller. The devoted Clancy fans probably aren’t interested in Jack Ryan getting the “Casino Royale” treatment to begin with. The knowledge that there’s no real audience for the film seems to pervade it on every level as there is not an iota of care or real effort in this whole undertaking.

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