Durable Clancy hero back in diverting reboot 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit'
Jack Ryan has more lives than Morris the Cat. The brilliant CIA analyst-turned-op, fictional hero of some dozen spy thriller novels by Tom Clancy, has also been featured in several high-profile spy movies of the '90s. Now the folks at Paramount have decided to give the character a face-lift (or should I say a youth potion) and trot him out anew for the next generation of audiences in the sleek, efficient thriller Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
Scripted by Adam Cozad and David Koepp, this is an origin story that borrows elements from the well-known Jack Ryan canon, but updates and reassembles them for the modern world. The first bright idea was to cast Chris Pine in the role, an appealing young actor whose nifty balance of humor and intensity has already served him well playing the young Captain Kirk in the recently rebooted Star Trek franchise. But the producers' smartest decision was to hire Kenneth Branagh to direct; his epic sense of drama and full-bore theatricality keeps the story percolating along.The story begins in London, where visiting Yank, Jack (Pine) is doing graduate work at the London School of Economics when he's politicized by the events of 9-11. After he joins the Marines and volunteers for combat duty, an injury nearly cripples him for life and ends his active service career, but his stint in rehab not only nets him a new girlfriend, Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), a doctor-in-training, it puts Jack on the radar of Navy commander Harper (Kevin Costner) of the CIA.
This all happens as prologue in a busy few minutes of film time before the title even appears onscreen. The main story begins a few years later with Jack deeply embedded as a Wall Street banker, covertly analyzing transaction data for the CIA to spot discrepancies that might suggest illicit funding for future terrorist activities. When certain anomalies do pop up that only someone with Jack's clinical brain would even notice, and his firm sends him to Moscow to audit the assets of its Russian partner bank ("Nobody else understands the data," a colleague points out), Jack's career as a mild-mannered desk jockey ends, and the thrill ride begins.
Director Branagh casts himself in the juicy role of Cherevin, a sinister Russian mastermind with a Napoleon complex who's plotting to destroy the U. S. by crashing its economy. (Although we wonder why he doesn't just sit back and let Wall Street do it on its own.) Alert viewers will also recognize ballet great Mikhail Baryshnikov in an uncredited cameo as a melancholy, yet ruthless Russian politico. Less useful is Knightley's Cathy. We understand why she has to be in the story, plot-wise (read: damsel in distress), but the couple's domestic squabbling at inopportune moments (she complains that he never tells her anything, yada, yada, yada) tends to slow things down.
On the other hand, the action is so fast and often complicated, we need the occasional breather. Branagh's vehicular chase scenes are fairly standard stuff, although accomplished, but he excels in smaller, personal moments of jeopardy and tension. An after-hours break-in to steal digital data is nerve-racking enough, but with the clock running out, Jack has to make convincing phone chit-chat with his office mates back home en route to getting a crucial access code from his boss. But the film's piece-de-resistance is an unexpected assassination attempt that goes on for long, breathlessly agonizing minutes of desperate hand-to-hand combat. ("You sold this to me as a desk job," Jack complains to Harper.)
This metaphorical blooding of Jack Ryan, from whiz-kid to activated field op, resonates throughout the film. Pine's Jack is resolute enough to rise to the physical challenges of the job, but he's still a geek at heart. The scriptwriters handle the inevitable moment of exposition when the convoluted international banking scheme has to be explained by inserting Costner's deadpan Harper—in lieu of the audience—urging Jack to simplify the details and cut to the chase. "Talk to me like I'm an idiot," Harper advises, and we all sigh in gratitude.
Costner continues to rehab his own career with his stalwart, no-nonsense turn here. Shadow Recruit is a diverting enough reboot while we're waiting for Hollywood to come up with more original material.
JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT ★ ★ ★ (out of four) With Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley ad Kenneth Branagh. Written by Adam Cozad and David Koepp. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. A Paramount release. Rated PG-13. 105 minutes.
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