It’s been more than a decade since the last movie based on Tom Clancy‘s thinking man’s action hero Jack Ryan opened in theaters. Far from a box office bomb The Sum of All Fears still failed to relaunch the franchise with Ben Affleck in the starring role. 11 years later Hollywood tries again with Chris Pine taking over the role in a Jack Ryan origin story that is the first of the five films to not be based off one of Clancy’s novels.
Although it plays with the timing of various important events, the screenplay remains close to Ryan’s origins from the Clancy novels. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit offers a quick look at the series of events that led him from earning a Doctorate in Economics to his stint in the Marine Corps and his eventual injury and recruitment into the CIA by Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner). The film also spends quite a bit of time developing the relationship between Ryan and Cathy (Keira Knightley), a phsycial therapist earning her medical degree who helps in his recovery and rehabilitation following the helicopter crash that nearly left him paralyzed.
Where the movie begins to diverge from Clancy’s work is in the mission that puts Ryan in the field for the first time. Seeing no reason to remake John McTiernan‘s The Hunt for Red October, which still holds up well 23 years later, screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp instead choose to craft their own espionage thriller involving an eminent terrorist attack on U.S. soil timed with a plot to cripple the U.S. economy by a Russian businessman (Kenneth Branagh, who also directs) which is particularly suited to Ryan’s unique skill set.
The film does a far job in balancing the various strands of Ryan’s life. Pine proves adapt at selling the emotional and analytic aspects of the storyline as well as the movie’s action scenes (which take over a bit too much for my tastes in the film’s action-heavy final act). Knightley, who I adore in pretty much anything, gives the film a strong, smart female co-star as Cathy is well woven in the fabric of Jack’s life and more than just a minor character used as a plot device. Jack and Cathy’s storyline is central to the plot and her immediate reaction to discovering the secret her long-time boyfriend has kept from her couldn’t have been handled any better. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit also gets the most of the Ryan/Harper relationship as Costner proves to be an excellent choice for our hero’s mentor.
When I was growing up evil Russians were a constant in action movies. It seems we’ve come full circle. Kenneth Branagh is your typical old school charming villain with a diabolic plot that takes someone like Jack Ryan to stop them. Of all the major characters in the film Branagh’s is the weakest of the bunch but but that doesn’t stop the actor/director from stealing his moments. I particularly enjoyed Knightley and Branagh in their scenes together where Jack relies on the woman he loves to help the CIA distract their mark during a crucial moment in the story.
It may not be as good as The Hunt for Red October, but Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit proves a worthy entrant to a franchise that’s been quiet for an awfully long time. More memorable than either Patriot Games or Clear and Present Danger (which long ago blurred into one indistinguishable blob since I saw them last), and better executed both in front and behind the camera than The Sum of All Fears, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is the kind of action-drama that has a little something for everyone. (And it’s got Keira Knightley in IMAX, which certainly doesn’t hurt).