The first fifteen minutes of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit zips by. It re-establishes a character we’ve seen four times before, only this time it starts at a new beginning. In fact, in many respects, this is not the same Ryan we’ve known. It truly is a reboot.
Chris Pine, whose career so far appears to be developed around series reboots, is a good choice. He effectively conveys the look and movements of a young man who doesn’t feel equipped to be an action man, yet somehow blusters through and manages to hold his own against the bad guys when he needs to. “I’m out of my element,” he insists. “I’m an analyst.”
The opening is London where Ryan is studying at the London School of Economics. The year is 2001, the date, 9/11. On a TV screen, along with the other students, Ryan watches in horror as the twin towers come under attack. “Sorry, mate,” says a compassionate fellow student, knowing that Ryan is an American overseas. The event has a lasting effect on the young man. Within seconds of screen time it is now eighteen months later and Ryan is a lieutenant in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban, but his world comes crashing down around him when the helicopter he is riding in is attacked by a missile.
Ryan survives, but is badly damaged. The doctors scramble, trying to keep the young man alive. “He has a ninety minute window if he wants to walk again,” a doctor declares. It is while at rehab, partially healed and learning to walk again without the aid of crutches that Ryan meets the two people who will change his life. One is the pretty young doctor, Cathy (Keira Knightly employing a surprisingly efficient American accent) whose tough-love aids Ryan in his recovery, the other, naval officer and covert CIA operative, William Harper (Kevin Costner) who sees something in Ryan that can be molded and used to serve his country.
It’s an effective beginning, and neatly serves as a way for us to be re-introduced to a character who, on the evidence of this adventure, will be seen again. With Captain Kirk under his belt, and the occasional smart departure like Unstoppable, Pine has quite a career ahead.
As the film continues, Ryan becomes a junior analyst working undercover for the CIA, and it is here where he discovers something not quite right. Delving deeper into figures and the financial transactions of a certain Russian businessman, Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, doing double duty as both actor and director) Ryan uncovers a plot to cripple global economy that he’ll later discover will include another terrorist attack on Wall Street with the potential of being equal if not bigger than 9/11.
From beginning to end, the film grips in unexpected ways. The opening moments set the tone, and from there it doesn’t stop, but it also doesn’t use continuous action to tell its story. The oath of secrecy creates conflicts between Ryan and his fiancée; Ryan’s self doubt as his job develops from being an analyst to full time spy causes personal alarm, and his relationship with his CIA handler has an uncomfortable edge throughout. You’re never quite sure if Ryan will eventually be used as a sacrifice, particularly after the supervisor calmly explains to Ryan how his first killing years ago was an innocent female bystander who simply got in the way. Plus, Branagh’s villainous Russian businessman reeks of danger throughout. He’s the kind of man whose very presence is unnerving.
Many showings of the film will be on the giant IMAX screen, and it’s not necessary. With the exception of the opening aerial shot of London’s River Thames, the film doesn’t contain the epic scope of panoramic photography that makes IMAX special. In fact, many of the close-ups and the up close chaos of the action sequences work against the presentation where some audience members may feel in danger of being visually overwhelmed. It doesn’t need the gimmick. The film is fine on a regular screen.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is not based on a Tom Clancy novel. It’s an original that merely uses the character’s name and occupation. It’s always possible that fans of Clancy’s work, and they are legion, may bristle at the notion of Hollywood taking their man and doing something new with him, but David Koepp and Adam Cozad’s script truly captures that Clancy spirit to the point where it neatly dovetails into the other works. Having not read the books it’s difficult to say if it truly stands up to Clancy’s unique and heavily detailed style of writing, but in cinematic terms it holds its own against the first and, up until now, the best of the Ryan films, The Hunt For Red October, and that’s down to director Branagh whose taut and intelligent direction makes the film truly come alive. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a genuine nail-biter.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 106 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)