26 January 2014

Movie Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit


Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit 
2014, 105mins, 12
Director: Kenneth Branagh 
Writer (s): David Koepp, Adam Cozad, Anthony Peckham, Tom Clancy (character)
Cast includes: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh 
UK Release Date: 24th January 2014

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” might’ve been a vital actioner in 1993, but watching it through the prism of 21st century expectations renders it a deflating experience. The feature has a credible polish and its action sequences are often well edited (director Kenneth Branagh picking up where he left with 2011’s “Thor”) but there’s nothing in the plot to elevate it above a secondary Bond adventure from the Brosnan era. The usually charismatic Chris Pine is the fourth Hollywood A-lister to occupy this character’s skin, probably more of a comment on Ryan’s recurrent lack of franchise credibility than anything else. Paramount seem reluctant to let this Tom Clancy creation die – yet repeatedly muted audience enthusiasm suggests that’s the only fate he’s fit for – the tame “Shadow Recruit” unlikely to ignite Ryan’s damp stock any higher than prior and mostly forgotten adaptations.

Inspired by the war on terror, Jack Ryan (a stiff Chris Pine) enlisted in the Marines before being injured in the line of duty; leaving behind the legacy of a hero. Following rehabilitation Jack is assigned an undercover gig on Wall Street by the CIA, using financial patterns to help detect future terrorist activity. When he stumbles upon some unusual activity in the accounts of a firm run by Chevron (Kenneth Branagh), Jack is shipped off to Moscow in order to ascertain further insight. He almost immediately faces assassination, squirreling out of the predicament and into a ruthless field op, as it transpires the extent of Chevron’s misconduct far outstretches monetary maleficence. With America facing an incoming market crash at the Russian tycoon’s behest, Jack begins infiltrating the man’s inner circle, bemused girlfriend Cathy (Keira Knightley) and mentor Harper (Kevin Costner) also along for the ride.

What impresses about “Shadow Recruit” is the solidly executed action, most of which hangs together nicely. Branagh has clearly made an effort to up his game for this genre’s demands, using decent editorial technique and gritty hard-hitting to generate tension. The movie works better when the set-pieces unfurl on a smaller scale, as exhibited by a feisty bathroom brawl in the movie’s opening third, a well arranged and edgy cacophony of fisticuffs that recalls “Casino Royale” in the right ways. Nearly every other “big” moment centres around an automotive chase, all shot with energy and coherency, but lacking that extra layer of imagination or style that might pressure it toward greatness. There’s enough freneticism to accommodate moderate interest, but when the scope enlarges, Branagh tends to play the sequences safely. One only has to recall the inert finale of his otherwise effective “Thor” to draw a parallel. Next time, layering on the bombast with more confidence would be advisable.

The screenplay presents a functional but unspectacular narrative, and one governed by geo-political cruxes that went out of date twenty years ago. This is never more apparent than with Branagh’s villain; an opera cum art buff, governed by Cold War era patriotism. These are hackneyed choices, dating the picture’s sensibility and distancing it from the teen contingency paying to see this stuff. “Shadow Recruit” seems entirely constructed with these aged stereotypes at heart, rarely willing to engage with the rawer post 9/11 vibes upheld by the Bourne franchise (itself now 12 years old). This is a hero who first appeared some 30 years ago, and in 2014 he’s really beginning to creak.

The expository exchanges in the film are regularly embarrassing (somebody actually demands to have facts relayed to them “like an idiot”) but there exist isolated moments of joy. Knightley has more life in her than most contemporary genre squeezes, holding her own in a suspenseful dinnertime interaction with Branagh’s familiar but menacing nasty. Her relationship with Ryan also boasts a playful sincerity, the movie bringing them together swiftly and stabilising a warm core on which to hang the dramatics. It gives the feature a pleasantly unforced romantic component, built around cuddliness instead of steamy seduction.

“Shadow Recruit” is competent enough to amuse sporadically, but its unfashionable political awareness and distinctly 90s grasp of storytelling are a hindrance. The picture stumbled last week when it opened at the US Box-Office, leaving the likelihood of a direct sequel tarnished. Still, I’d bet good money that we’ll see the character resurface again in another ten years, probably as irrelevant and haggard as ever. Maybe then some brave artist will attempt to spruce the formula up – but on past form, I don’t hold much hope.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014


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