Despite what Hollywood believes, not all successful film franchises need to be rebooted. Sometimes the success of a certain series has as much to do with the time of release as anything else. Case in point would be ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’. The Kenneth Branagh-helmed attempt to bring back Tom Clancy’s superspy isn’t a terrible movie. It’s just one that feels woefully dated and out of place despite all of the contemporary references crammed into the script.
When Paul Greengrass and co. pimped out their Jason Bourne sequels, they kept discussing the series as an anti-James Bond antidote. Well, since Bond was always depoliticized pulp, that series easily survived by upping the grit and cutting the tripods. However, the ‘Bourne’ movies could better be described as anti-Jack Ryan. After that politically charged, gritty and complex deconstruction of the traditional American spy hero, watching Jack Ryan face off against a bunch of evil Russians can’t help but feel dated despite all the shaky-cam and post 9/11 references.
The main problem is that Jack Ryan is a fairly personality-free boy scout who fights Russians, and that sort of thing is almost charmingly outdated these days. Chris Pine was a good choice for the role. He has the poster-friendly looks and lack of grit that defines the series for better or worse.
In this “Jack Ryan Begins” adventure, we see Pine’s ambitious grad student immediately drop out and join the Army for the good of America. He’s then subsequently in a helicopter crash that breaks his back, but also introduces him to a beautiful doctor love interest (Keira Knightley) and a spy father figure who recruits him to the CIA (Kevin Costner). Fast forward a few years and Ryan is working undercover in the exciting world of financial crime, only to stumble upon a potentially massive fraud at the hands of the Russians. So, he’s flown over to Russia for his first official mission. It’s supposed to be a quiet audit of an evil Russian suit (Branagh himself), but quickly turns violent when the man who picks up Ryan from the airport also attempts to assassinate him. The next thing you know, Pine, Costner and (weirdly) Knightley are caught up in a battle with Branagh, who’s planning to cripple the U.S. economy through stock manipulation AND stage a terrorist attack. Whoo-boy, what a jerk!
Even though this ‘Jack Ryan’ prequel isn’t based on a specific Tom Clancy novel, the screenwriting team of Adam Cozad and David Koepp manage to deliver a very Clancy-like Cold War terrorist plot, with a little 9/11 and economic collapse flavor to make it all seem fresh. It doesn’t work. The movie feels like it could have been made in 1992, and not in a good way. Back when Clancy was at his peak, geopolitics were just stable enough to make his ‘Jack Ryan’ adventures charming. These days, this one feels like listening to your grandfather talk about how awesome the CIA used to be. The cast is fine (especially the mugging Branagh, who clearly loves rolling his tongue around a Russian accent), but the film is ultimately dull when it should be immediate and exciting.
Branagh knows how to tell a story and work with actors, but he’s not an action director, despite ‘Thor’. That’s a major problem. All of the fights, car chases and set-pieces feel perfunctory and cranked-out through thoughtless handheld cinematography, just because that’s the post-‘Bourne’ trend. (That series may have been a breath of fresh air at the time, but it killed off visually-coherent action scenes in a tragic way.) Everything comes to a peak during a climatic car chase in which a phone conversation between Branagh and Pine is far more engaging than the twisted metal antics occurring simultaneously. It’s nice that the movie has a character focus, but when the action scenes are the worst part of an action movie, something went wrong.
Kenneth Branagh was probably the wrong person to direct ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’. Yet at least in hiring such an unconventional choice, the studio tried. Likewise, the attempt to cram contemporary politics into this reboot shows that everyone involved in this production was aware of the pitfalls of the character and wanted to deal with them. Unfortunately, the final film suggests that Jack Ryan probably shouldn’t be revived. The character worked in a certain time and place. That time has passed, and despite the best efforts of everyone involved in this blockbuster, perhaps Jack Ryan should disappear from screens as well. Some good movies were made about Jack Ryan and they’ll always be around for nostalgia, whereas ‘Shadow Recruit’ will probably sit next to ‘The Sum of All Fears’ on the obscurity shelf in the future. There’s still a place for spy thrillers in the multiplex, but it may be time to find a new hero and let Jack Ryan retire. He’s served his country and his purpose. Now bring in the new recruits.