The story of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is not simply about the rebooting of Tom Clancy’s most well-known literary creation as cinematic fodder — something that Hollywood has done in three previous incarnations (with Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck). This is really the story of the rebooting of the directorial career of Kenneth Branagh. Once known solely for his efforts to bring the great works of Shakespeare into the eyes and ears of modern moviegoers, he has decided to put those interests aside for the sake of his acting career and now in an attempt to make blatant commercial fare. And while he hasn’t improved his directorial action chops since his work on the first Thor (TMT Review) movie, with Jack Ryan, he’s at least proven willing to learn and move forward.
He does so by making the fight scenes, car chases, and espionage in Jack Ryan appropriately sloppy and slapdash. Because as the title character, played by Chris Pine with the same aw shucks grit that made his Captain Kirk such a delight, keeps reminding his superiors: he’s just an analyst.
A former economics student contracted by the CIA to track financial misdeeds involving terrorists from within Wall Street, Ryan has the moxie to fight back against a potential assassin, but lacks the skills to dispense of him quickly. His technique for handling crisis situations is slightly manic and uncertain, so even if the film’s big fight in a hotel bathroom comes off as rushed and stumbling, it suits the character nicely. Branagh and screenwriters David Koepp and Adam Cozod do give the people what they want with some fine action sequences, but also manage to make the film’s most pulse-quickening scene one in which Ryan and a group of CIA analysts attempting to pinpoint the location of a terrorist attack using Facebook photos and cell phone triangulation.
Jack Ryan also attempts to bring a little cat-and-mouse game back into the world of international espionage. When Ryan uncovers the early hints of a potential attack, he’s dispatched to Moscow and put at odds with the man pulling the strings on the operation: Viktor Cherevin. Played with unassuming precision and a touch of creepiness by Branagh himself, he comes off as a slimy mixture of intelligence and madness. And to watch Branagh, Pine, and Keira Knightley — stumbling gamely through the film as Ryan’s finance — play off each other adds a little Bond movie sass into an otherwise by-the-books storyline.
Ironically, as comfortable he seems slipping into commercialist mode, Branagh may have upended his future prospects by making Jack Ryan too economical. Modern moviegoers have likely by now become immune to the bloated running time of action films, yet this film is put to bed in just over 90 minutes. To his credit and that of the screenwriters, though, Branaugh gives us enough backstory and character development to actually have us caring about the fate of our square-jawed hero without overstating everything. Even Gravity (TMT Review), one of the sharpest visions of 2013, felt it necessary to shoehorn in some cocked up motivation for its main character. But Branagh baits the hook just enough to have you latch on and get reeled into the action before you know what hit you.