Tom Clancy’s beloved Jack Ryan provided an unambiguously heroic face for the CIA—just keep in mind that “intelligence” is a malleable term. Especially if you watch the movies made from Clancy’s Ryan novels, Patriot Games et al. Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck have already embodied Ryan. Now Chris Pine, apparently the go-to guy for junior versions of serialized characters already played by established elder actors (see the last two Star Treks), is taking on the role in the first movie “inspired by” Clancy’s most famous creation, rather than an actual adaptation of one of the Ryan novels. Written by Adam Cozad and David Koepp and directed by Kenneth Branagh, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, which is as much about the foundations of a marriage as it is about saving America and/or the world from annihilation, feels in some respects a little more knowingly lightweight than its predecessors, though its suspicion that Russia is still working to destroy the world seems very much in keeping with Clancy’s tenacious vision. In the shadowy world of late U.S. author, glasnost was always a bluff and the Cold War didn’t end so much as go undercover.
Which makes Branagh’s choice to cast himself as Viktor Cherevin, the big, bad Russian heavy masterminding a second Great Depression and catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil kind of endearing. It’s also flamboyantly arrogant, a showy performance depending on the English actor nailing just the right mealy-mouthed accent and lipless Slavic grimace. But, while his directorial efforts have taken a curious swing from Shakespeare and Mary Shelley to Marvel Comics and Clancy, Branagh the actor has always modelled his career after Laurence Olivier, and this is just the sort of stunt acting that Olivier, for better or worse, savoured. Anyway, he’s very entertaining. Branagh knows he’s got the plum role—Pine’s Ryan, who over the course of the movie goes from math student to marine to secret analyst to superspy, is mostly required to run around a lot and stay cool under pressure. He’s pretty variable. A scene in which Pine’s Ryan has to pretend to be drunk during a fancy dinner is preposterous. And so is most the movie, especially the super-sweaty last act. You’ll never guess how the hero saves New York from exploding! (Psst… Pay attention to the painting.)
But here’s something kind of interesting: there’s a second, unexpected recruit in Shadow Recruit. We know from the outset that Ryan is supposed to keep his employer a secret from everybody, even his girlfriend, who only gets to hear shoptalk if she agrees to become Mrs. Ryan. But the plot twists itself enough so that Cathy (Keira Knightley) pays a surprise visit to Ryan in Moscow and finds out everything. Rather than call the whole thing off, Ryan’s supervisor (a nice, low-key Kevin Costner) opts to work Cathy into the big scheme to divert Cherevin while Ryan steals his data. I actually found Knightley’s performance as a sort of Mata Hari in the aforementioned dinner scene more convincing and nuanced than that of Pine. Will Jack and Cathy be a terror-fighting duo from here on? Will future Jack Ryan flicks offer us a 21st century geopolitical blockbuster variation on The Thin Man? Scoff if you will. Worse things could happen.