Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a formulaic, spiritless attempt to resurrect an iconic cinematic character, and if this film is any indication of how this franchise will look moving forward, I’d prefer if it stayed buried. Chris Pine stars as the title character, an analyst-turned-operational CIA agent who discovers an international conspiracy to crash the US stock exchange and plunge America into a second Great Depression. A paint-by-numbers screenplay and questionable direction from co-star Kenneth Branagh results in a film so lifeless and uninspired I could barely muster enough effort to roll my eyes at it.
At one point during The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort says, “When you sail on a boat fit for a Bond villain, sometimes you need to play the part.” It’s a small acknowledgement of his lavish and ridiculous lifestyle, but even a throwaway line like this reveals that at least Belfort has some self-awareness. In Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, no one possesses any self-awareness, and the film itself seems frightfully oblivious to the mundane way in which it trudges through its story. Branagh’s villainous Cherevin has an office that looks exactly like a Bond villain’s lair, complete with sleek black marble walls, a secret elevator, and a hand grenade displayed in a glass case. To keep the Bond comparisons coming, there’s a large chunk of the film devoted to an elaborate scheme to steal Cherevin’s key card to his office so the good guys can hack some information from his computer. This sequence seems to last about thirty minutes, and while plenty of Bond films feature similar plot points, the reason those work is because Bond is actually an interesting character. We rarely care about his mission – it’s always about saving the world in one way or another – but Bond is a slick, charismatic, super spy who has proven over the course of nearly two dozen films that he’s able to thrive in insane circumstances.
Thanks to the maddeningly mediocre script by Adam Cozad and David Koepp, Chris Pine’s Jack Ryan is practically a blank slate. He has no defining characteristics, and though he’s shown to be only an analyst as the film gets underway, by the end of the movie he’s pulling off death-defying stunts and making Sherlockian logical leaps like he’s been doing it all his life. We care about Bond because he’s engaging; Jack Ryan is just tedious. It’s not entirely Pine’s fault (although he’s been much better than he is here), because he’s simply not given anything worthwhile to work with. Even the classically trained Kenneth Branagh can’t make Cherevin a threatening villain.
Keira Knightley is dreadful as Ryan’s fiancee Cathy, a med student turned eye doctor who discovers her boyfriend is a spy and instantly jumps into a dangerous situation without a moment’s thought. (Spoilers for her character follow.) It seems that the screenwriters flirted with the idea of her character being a villainous agent herself – that angle is on display in the film’s marketing – but if that was ever their intention, they abandoned the concept, probably out of the fear that it might actually make audiences perk up for a second during an otherwise listless experience.
The dialogue is laughably unconvincing and completely unrealistic. Shane Black, Quentin Tarantino, Rian Johnson, and people at that talent level can create banter that doesn’t sound “real,” exactly, but it works within the context of their stories. The dialogue from Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit isn’t stylized – it’s just stupid. When a CIA lackey tells Costner’s commander character that he’s working on developing a solution to a time-sensitive problem, Costner just barks, “Develop faster!” Right. Thanks for the constructive criticism, buddy.
Logically speaking, there’s rarely a moment in the film that makes sense. One example: when a plot to crash the United States’ economy is discovered by Ryan and his team 16 or 18 hours before it goes in motion, one might assume they’d get some other CIA agents in to help foil it. Not in this movie. Branagh’s direction doesn’t help matters, either; he filmed the most incomprehensible crash scene I’ve ever laid eyes on, and his odd framing choices don’t even allow for the film to be enjoyable on a visual level. He could have used a better editor, too – there are a few shots in which his character stares down Keira Knightley that go on for about two full seconds too long, taking his character from the realm of “potentially menacing” to “laughably ridiculous.”
Look, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit won’t end up being one of the worst films of the year or anything. It’s far too mediocre for that. It’s not nearly as abysmal as A Good Day to Die Hard – not by a long shot. But at least Willis’ film is bad enough to be memorable. I doubt anyone will remember much of anything about Shadow Recruit, even on the drive home from the theater. Until next time…
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