The cinematic career of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan has reflected the political anxieties of the moment: the Soviet nuclear threat (The Hunt for Red October); the war on drugs (Clear and Present Danger); counterterrorism (Patriot Games); and the threat of nuclear terror (Sum of All Fears).
It is no surprise, then, that the latest incarnation opens with Ryan, now played by Chris Pine, watching the 9/11 attacks. A doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics, he drops out to join the Marines, and suffers a spinal injury in Afghanistan. Having caught the attention of CIA handler Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), Ryan is recruited to go to work as a spook keeping an eye on money transfers.
But it’s not al Qaeda funders he’s looking for. Rather, he’s focused on Russian oligarchs transferring odd amounts of money around. The Russians are furious that the United States refuses to block the construction of an oil pipeline in Turkey—a move their ambassador to the United Nations says will lower the price of oil, thus destroying Russia’s economy and collapsing its government. The Russians want payback.
Enter Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, who also directed), one of the aforementioned oligarchs. A Russian patriot, he has plans to make the Americans pay via their greatest weakness: the national debt. Naturally, only Jack Ryan can stop him.
Similarly unsurprising is the movie’s refusal to tackle the threat of Islamist terror. This is, after all, the film series that changed the identity of the terrorist cell in The Sum of All Fears to white nationalists from Arab terrorists.
As an action-thriller, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is more or less competent. As an heir to the Jack Ryan mantle, however, it is less so. The film runs a lean 106 minutes. Too lean, in fact. One has the sense that subplots—such as the activation of a Russian sleeper cell in the heartland—were harshly trimmed to get the film’s running time down.
The film’s internal chronology makes no sense at all. We open on 9/11, flash forward 18 months to Ryan’s injury, pick up the story an untold number of months later during Ryan’s rehab, and then jump ahead to the modern day, at which point Ryan is working on Wall Street and has been dating his girlfriend Cathy (Keira Knightley)—who he met while in rehab—for three years.
The Jack Ryan films need time to unspool, to let the component parts breathe, so they come together in a believable and organic way. The series’ two best installments, The Hunt for Red October and Clear and Present Danger, run 135 and 142 minutes. I’m generally in favor of mercilessly trimming cinematic fat—I’m looking at you, Wolf of Wall Street—but not at the expense of common sense or storytelling. Both were harmed here.
Logical quibbles and storytelling flaws aside, the film is reasonably entertaining and anchored by solid performances. Costner’s wry father figure keeps Pine’s fidgety Ryan cool under pressure. Branagh is great, as always, alternating between genuinely menacing and winkingly playful. Knightley at times struggles with the American accent she’s been saddled with, but is otherwise her normal delightful self.