Review: ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ runs Tom Clancy’s spy franchise into the ground

Perhaps the greatest mystery that remains by the end of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is why anyone thought this movie needed to be made.

I get it in the general business sense. After all, Tom Clancy has been a major part of Paramount’s story over the last 30 years, starting with “The Hunt For Red October,” and they’ve managed to recast him enough times that they probably felt confident that, as with James Bond, the character is big enough that he can withstand whatever reboots the company decides are necessary.

But from a story sense, Clancy’s work feels like it is very much of a certain era, an era that has passed, and simply moving Jack Ryan to a new time frame doesn’t seem like it makes much sense thematically or narratively. It’s not like he, as a character, has developed a skill set that makes him stand apart from other characters in any significant way. There’s nothing about Jack Ryan, at least as he’s been imagined on film so far, that lends any urgency to this reboot.

Adam Cozad’s script “Moscow” provided the basic framework for the new film, with David Koepp also working on drafts of the movie, and this is meant to take us back to the early days of Ryan’s career. Of course, the first adventure we saw him in took place at the height of the Cold War, and this film begins with Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) at college in England where he sees the live broadcast of the attack on the World Trade Center. Smash cut to him serving in active duty in Afghanistan, so things have changed a bit this time around. This Ryan is a guy who intentionally puts himself in harm’s way, but who also constantly writes reports that he forwards up the chain of command, all of which are summarily ignored. Ryan is injured catastrophically when his helicopter is shot down and he has to go through some pretty intense physical therapy to get back on his feet. That’s where he meets Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), a lovely doctor who helps him get through the demanding treatment, and it’s also where he meets the mysterious Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who approaches him with an offer to work for the CIA as a deep-cover analyst. Jack goes to work for a Wall Street company when he gets out of the hospital, and it looks to the rest of the world like he has turned his back on the military and moved on with his life. But Harper’s always there, always watching, ready to activate Ryan when they need him.

Let’s be clear: I would love to be able to say that I loved the film. I think Costner’s got the exact right presence at this point in his career to play this guy, a mentor figure always hidden in shadow, and there are a few lovely grace notes he plays in his scenes. I particularly like the dog he shows up with at one of their meetings. But instead of pulling us into a world of exacting, precise details, one of the strengths of the early Clancy novels in particular, the film stays mired in cliche and caricature.

Ryan discovers some possible financial hijinks on the part of a corporation owned by Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh sporting a Russian accent so thick that even Fearless Leader would ask him to tone it down), and he’s sent to Moscow to investigate. It’s presented to Cherevin as a simple audit, but from the moment Jack lands, his life is in danger. The driver who picks him up at the airport attacks him when they get to the hotel, which seems like a very odd plan, and it leads to the first moment where I really felt like Kenneth Branagh had no idea what to do as a director, a fight scene in close quarters that is both geographically confusing and just plain badly shot. It doesn’t make much sense as a fight, and the only part of it that works is the very end, where Ryan has to use deadly force, morally compromising him for the first time.

If the film was smarter or more successful at what it’s trying to do, I think there’s merit in telling the story of someone who gets into espionage as someone capable of great mental feats but who has no idea what the cost is to someone’s soul to do this sort of work well. They pay lip service to the idea of Jack Ryan being so freaked out by what he had to do that he almost gives up the game right away, but when push comes to serve, Ryan turns into the same sort of generic superhero that we get from all mainstream action films at this point. He isn’t just smart, he’s also able to run, jump, punch, drive, and kill better than anyone else, and he solves more problems with punches than with actual clever solutions. For an analyst, a surprising amount of his work seems to hinge on how he handles himself in a fight.

The thing that really pushes the film completely off the rails is the big reveal about the nature of the plot that was hatched by Cherevin, and the way the third act unfolds is eye-rollingly silly. It also doesn’t feel like it’s anchored to the real geopolitical landscape, which has always been a big part of the appeal of the Ryan stories. I get that this version of Jack Ryan is taking place present day, but Cherevin and his plan feels mired in a mid-’80s idea of who the Russians are and what drives them. I don’t buy any of it, and since Branagh’s not particularly good at staging action, it is particularly deadly when the film stops even trying to be about ideas and just devolves in to a run-punch-shoot action movie.

This couldn’t have been a cheap film, but it feels like one in a lot of ways, and the photography by Haris Zambarloukas is generically slick, pretty but not really serving the storytelling at all. I have to put that on Branagh, who seems to me to be a guy who seems like the wrong fit for this on every level. Chris Pine is also not done any favors by the casting. I like Pine, but I don’t think he’s the right fit for this particular character. He doesn’t strike me as a guy who is smarter than everyone in the room, able to make leaps of perception that make him invaluable as an analyst. I suspect that Pine’s a guy like James Marsden, someone who Hollywood is going to want to turn into a big mainstream leading man but who is actually much stranger than that.

Is “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” terrible? Nope. But there’s nothing about it that sticks, and I have to assume this is going to be one of those franchise one-offs, an attempt to launch something that no one wants and that no one will remember a year from now. Tom Clancy passed away last year, and based on the evidence of this film, Jack Ryan will be joining him in the great beyond very soon.

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” opens in theaters everywhere tomorrow.