Branagh’s film, rife with clichés, resurrects action hero Jack Ryan

Published on Thursday, 23 January 2014 21:45 - Written by By Stewart Smith,

I’ve sat here for a few days trying to come up with a clever or interesting way to sum up how I feel about “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” but I just can’t muster anything. Although, I suppose that’s a bit fitting considering Kenneth Branagh’s latest film feels equally without a voice.

I don’t think there’s a single element found in Paramount’s re-introduction of the late Tom Clancy’s most prolific character that doesn’t feel like it was pulled straight from a bag of various action movie clich←s. Dastardly Russians out to make the United States pay? Check. Ticking time bombs? Check. A guy works for the CIA and must lie to his wife/girlfriend to keep his cover at the risk of destroying their relationship? Check. A hero who, seemingly at the flip of a switch, goes from desperate underdog barely capable of staying alive to being a step or two below James Bond? Check and check.

What’s doubly frustrating is that Jack Ryan (at least in his earliest incarnations) was a terrific everyman character, a lowly CIA analyst who kept finding himself caught in the middle of increasingly bigger scenarios. He was like a brainier version of John McClane, relying entirely on his wits instead of his ability to shoot a gun or throw a punch.

At the end of John McTiernan’s “The Hunt for Red October” (one of my all-time favorite films and still the best adaptation of a Clancy novel) when Alec Baldwin’s version of Ryan pulls the trigger to stop a KGB agent from blowing up the submarine, it’s seen as a climactic bit of a-typical action. By the end of “Shadow Recruit,” Chris Pine’s Ryan has gone (with not even the slightest bit of incremental progression) from a guy whose hands shake uncontrollably after he’s killed a man to tearing around Moscow and New York City on motorcycles and BMW’s like he’s James Bond.

That James Bond comparison is one that constantly came to mind throughout the course of this film’s mercifully brief runtime. This feels much more like Paramount’s effort to reboot Jack Ryan into its own American Bond than anything that largely resembles the Clancy character.

Given that “Shadow Recruit” doesn’t provide a faithful presentation of the character, I suppose it would be possible to simply take this as an action-thriller on its own merits. At least, that would be the ideal route and it might have even been possible had any of its elements really stuck out in any significant way.

Chris Pine has the potential to be a very fun, charismatic leading man and he’s shown in the past that he’s willing to take on some unflattering characters if it’s a fun role (a la his hilariously deranged role in “Smokin’ Aces”), but there’s just nothing here that shows why he’s started to grab the attention of filmmakers. The Ryan he’s given to play is one that has little to truly define him beyond some fairly rote characteristics.

Keira Knightly is wasted as Cathy, Jack’s fianc←e who gets thrown into the middle of his operation because she came nosing around his “business trip.” Never mind the baffling decision to have Knightly, a British actress, don a terrible American accent despite Clancy originally writing the character as British.

Costner is fine but, again, is mostly wasted. He’s Jack’s handler and mostly serves to spout off exposition and move Jack from point A to point B. Were it anyone other than Costner in the part it’d be the most invisible role in the film.

Branagh is the only one who seems to really be having any sort of fun as the Russian businessman whose machinations set the whole plot in motion. If there’s a way to go over-the-top with playing a stoic Russian, then Branagh’s found it.

And speaking of Branagh, can we bar him from ever directing an action movie again? I thoroughly enjoy his Shakespeare adaptations, but between this and “Thor” he’s shown he’s simply got no eye for how good action should be shot and cut. His work here is especially poor as he, like far too many inept action directors before him, has no clue how to establish a sense of geography in his action or how to shoot it clearly and cleanly, falling back on the now useless “shaky cam” technique that has become the bane of my existence since Paul Greengrass first made it popular a decade ago.

More than anything, though, I’m just baffled as to why Paramount insisted on trying to push Jack Ryan as an action hero and kick-start a new franchise. I know Clancy’s name still carries weight, but does the studio really think audiences care enough about the character to keep coming back? The dreadful opening weekend for this suggests not.