Will This Film Reboot the Much Loved Spy Series?

Director: KENNETH BRANAGH/2014

January can be a tough month for movie going. Most films being released in the first month of the year are typically not deemed worthy enough for a fall release alongside the Oscar-worthy films and the family holiday films that litter that time of the year.  Any film being released in this month is usually already suspect of being viewed as second tier viewing at best.  Couple that with being a reboot of a franchise that is loved by millions and a character that has been played in the past by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck.  This is the dilemma facing the new film, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, namely, is it a worthy film for those who like the character, and is it a good introduction for those unfamiliar with the CIA analyst?

Chris Pine, fresh off of rebooting another in big franchise for Paramount (2009’s Star Trek, and 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness), is now ready to do the same for Tom Clancy’s favorite agent. Joining him for the ride is his recruiter to the CIA, Thomas Harper (played by Kevin Costner), his girlfriend Cathy, played by Keira Knightley, and the villain Victor, played here by the film’s director, Kenneth Branagh.

Overall, I will say that I liked the film.  This is not to say that there aren’t some major problems but in the end, they do not outweigh the positives.  I’ll start with the positives:

Chris Pine ably steps into Jack Ryan’s shoes and demonstrates the ability to be both the analyst depicted by Baldwin and Ford as well as the CIA agent being activated by Costner’s Harper.  Both Pine and Knightley have good chemistry together with Knightley giving several nods to Anne Archer’s portrayal of Cathy Ryan in the previous entries.  Costner is subdued but a strong presence in the film, easily commanding the scenes he is in.  Kenneth Branagh is always fun to watch and is calculating and cold as the villain but still manages to bring a empathetic quality to the character that makes his deeds even crueler.

Despite these things, there are some areas that I felt made this film less than it could have been.  Despite a clever and timely economic threat, the film doesn’t really create any tension for the audience of what will ultimately unfold.  The outcome is rarely in doubt. In The Hunt for Red October, the height of tension was whether or not Sean Connery’s Marko Ramius was really a Soviet Captain bent on the destruction of America or playing a dangerous game so that he could defect.  In Patriot Games, Harrison Ford is tasked with going after the terrorists as his daughter lay in the hospital with her life hanging in the balance.  Nothing went nice and neat.  In Shadow Recruit, everything happens like clockwork…literally.

It also seems like a nod to the cold war character Jack Ryan was in the books by making the Russians the perpetrators of geopolitical escalation in this 2014 film.  Given the Economic subject matter of the film, China would have been a more obvious choice for Shadow Recruit’s antagonist. Given China’s growing influence in film production, however (including having special versions of films released just for their audiences, like Iron Man 3), it is no wonder the script defaulted to the Russians.

Branagh’s direction is solid, and he creates a good tension between Jack Ryan and Victor Cherevin, but ultimately its too cleanly dealt with given the scenario.  Also the third act is rushed and key characters that are related to the Victor’s endgame are not truly fleshed out enough to provide any real tension.  They are merely a plot device to get to the film’s desired ending.

Shadow Recruit also suffers from an identity crises.  On one hand, it plays to the analytical nature of Jack Ryan and his ability to find the truth in the details.  On the other hand, its action scenes resemble too many other storied franchises to truly have an identity of its own.  From a hotel scene reminiscent of Daniel Craig’s James Bond, a timed race to obtain information borrowed from Mission Impossible, to chase scenes that borrow from Jason Bourne (though not as choppy in the editing), Paramount’s reboot is trying to appeal to the largest possible audience and is losing some of its core audience in the process.

And while it would seem that I have found lots wrong with this picture, the fact is that it still manages to entertain.  I was able to see the film on an IMAX screen, and it allowed for the action to draw you into the film more than a standard screen.  In the end, its January, and this film rises above the typical fare of this time of year, providing a solid popcorn film, which I believe is what it set out to do. This would probably not have fared as well in the summer, and Paramount was wise to handle its release date the way it did.

In the end, Jack Ryan is still the boy scout analyst the Tom Clancy put into print, even if this story doesn’t mine any of his source material directly.  Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit has delivered a fun and adequate entry that should earn it a sequel.  Let’s hope that moving forward, the writers learn from these mistakes and up the ante for our protagonist and the country he has sworn to protect.