The Jack Ryan series has always been a bit of an anonymous film franchise, it’s perfectly plausible for someone to have heard of every film in it without realising there even was a series, and not just because each title lacked a numeral. It began pretty well way back in 1990 with John McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October, a critical and commercial success starring Alec Baldwin as Ryan, but neither the director or star returned for the sequel Patriot Games, in which Harrison Ford took the lead. The closest thing to a direct follow-up occurred next with Clear and Present Danger, but then plans for a third Ford film never came through, and the series was rebooted in 2002 with Ben Affleck as a younger Ryan in The Sum of All Fears. That brought forth no new series and the films quietly disappeared until Hollywood realised they were sitting on a once popular, presently dormant character, which nowadays of course means it’s time for a (well, another) reboot! Yes, now three of the five films in the series represent a do-over for the main character, with Chris Pine (who has reboot experience with Star Trek) now taking on the role.
And a reboot is most definitely what Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is trying to be, setting up a whole new timescale and retelling Ryan’s origins for modern audiences, while not being based on any specific book by author Tom Clancy. It begins with Ryan as a student in London witnessing the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the news, then flashes forward to him serving in Afghanistan with the US military. He picks up an injury there, taking him to an army hospital where he meets both a young doctor named Cathy (Kiera Knightley) and CIA operative Harper (Kevin Costner). Flash forward ten years, and Ryan’s a CIA analyst working undercover on Wall Street, and Cathy’s his long-term girlfriend.
Director Kenneth Branagh deals with the set-up reasonably efficiently, getting it over and done with briskly in order to set up the proper plot of the film. This involves Ryan noticing some hidden Russian funds containing large amounts of money, requiring him to fly off to Moscow for some ‘operational’ spy work. Branagh, taking on another big-budget Hollywood film after Thor, handles the action moderately well but there’s nothing remarkable here at all, its main set-piece is a sub-Mission: Impossible infiltration scene that undermines its own tension with cutaways to the villain’s improbable actions, and puts in a completely misplaced shot a comic relief (screenwriter David Koepp also wrote Mission: Impossible) . For all its initial stabs at modernising the character, the overall film feels a bit dated too, with its cartoonish Russian super villain (played by Branagh himself) feeling like something out of a cold war era Bond film.
Ryan himself is a hard character to pin down, because there’s just nothing particularly memorable about his skills or personality. He seems to have been put in here as a ‘catch-all’ spy archetype; he does everything, data analysis, hand to hand combat, vehicular chases, stealth infiltration, hacking, distractive role-playing, and more. Whatever the plot requires of him, he’s able to do, Pine suits the role fine but Jack Ryan ends up feeling about as remarkable as his name is. Kiera Knightley fares worse as his girlfriend Cathy, with a dodgy American accent; she goes from being a nuisance, to unrealistically resourceful, to quite useful, then damsel in distress, and the script never explores the conflict in her having a relationship with a secret agent in any depth. Still, Kevin Costner is much better in another solid statesman role (following Man of Steel), and may well be on the way to something of a comeback if he sticks to these types of parts.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is mostly a collection of familiar spy movie beats that are assembled in an adequate manner but all feel like things we’ve seen done before in a superior fashion, Bond, 24, Misson: Impossible, Bourne, they’re all there. It doesn’t look likely to kick off a new series of Jack Ryan films, and I wouldn’t be too surprised that if we ever see the character on screen again, he’ll be played by yet another different actor in a new reboot.