During what is usually a month stuffed with bad movies, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit ends up being more than just a January surprise; it’s actually a very good movie in its own right. The casting is smart and the direction is solid, making up for some minor believability gaps in the writing. But even with a couple blemishes, Shadow Recruit is a slick blend of action, intrigue and drama. Audiences looking to get away from the post-holiday doldrums will find the perfect escape here.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit reboots the titular character. Studying abroad in England, Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) drops out of graduate school and joins the US Marines when 9/11 happens. A couple of years later, while deployed in the Middle East, Jack and two soldiers are shot down in their helicopter. Fortunately, they survive, but Jack’s spine is damaged, sending him into rehabilitation so that he can learn to walk again with the help of medical student Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley). While recuperating, Jack is approached by Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who wants to recruit Jack into the CIA for his analytical skills. Years later, Jack finds himself embedded in Wall Street, searching for suspicious financial transactions. When he discovers some involving a Russian company owned by Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), Jack is sent to Russia to investigate. What he discovers has global implications and is an evil plot that only he can stop.
Shadow Recruit has everything it needs to be a successful espionage film; it’s got thrilling action, cool gadgets, shadowy organizations and stakes that reach into the stratosphere. However, don’t expect this to be high-octane like the Bourne or Bond series of films. Instead, audiences are in store for a moderately paced movie that focuses more on analysis and spying rather than running and gunning. One of the more intriguing scenes is when Jack takes the lead at a command center full of analysts, directing them on what to search and where to send resources. It sounds boring on paper, but watching it in action is fun to experience and gives a real sense of Jack’s analytical prowess and ability to make accurate decisions based on partial information.
That’s not to say that the action is lacking – when it’s needed, it’s there – it’s just not as big of a set piece as viewers might expect. This might be due to director Kenneth Branagh, who isn’t recognized for being an action film director. Some of the sequences suffer from cameras that are too close to the action, making it very difficult to discern what exactly is happening beyond people grappling. Other issues arise from the logic of the action. In one scene, Jack must hack into a secure network from a specific, high-security room. When guards are alerted to the intrusion, the entire security staff is sent to close in on Jack’s position, allowing him to escape. It seemed like no one was sent to guard the actual exits or watch the security monitors. Nevertheless, in the moment, most audiences won’t notice these inconsistencies and will just enjoy the thrill.
The casting is very good and is a highlight of the film. Pine is a superb choice to play Jack Ryan. He has the All-American good looks that previous Jack Ryans have maintained, while also having the can-do, never-say-die spirit audiences have come to expect from the character. Costner is also a wonderful fit in his role as mentor and senior field operative. It’s comforting to see him playing older, wiser characters, who don’t always have to be part of the action. Still, he does get a turn on a sniper rifle to give his character a little edge. Branagh clearly enjoys his role, affording him opportunities to contrast himself with the other actors through his reliable subtlety and inscrutable facial expressions.
Despite its above average runtime, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit could still stand to have a little more content, if only to help develop the story more. The film spends a lot of time upfront, giving Jack Ryan’s backstory, which really isn’t needed. It would have been a better use of time to flesh out the bad guys and their plot instead of seeing Jack at pivotal moments in his life, since his past doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the film. But this is a small complaint of an otherwise very satisfying presentation; audiences are going to have a good time. This is the first great movie of the year.