Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

January is usually a dumping ground for cinema so even a modest success like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit should be welcomed with open arms. Unfortunately the film isn’t doing well at the box office (possibly due to the blandness of the marketing) and the prospects for a sequel are dim. While the script is standard spy-fare, the cast is top notch and watching Chris Pine, Kevin Costner and Keira Knightley inhabit the screen and these characters together is a treat. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit has no interest in reinventing the spy genre. It’s merely a chance for director Kenneth Branagh to have fun with the formula.

Billed as a reboot, the film reimagines Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst Jack Ryan as an economist-cum-marine born out of the aftermath of 9/11. While working undercover for the CIA on Wall Street, Jack uncovers a Russian plot to sink the U.S. dollar, which would coincide with a terrorist attack to further crash the market. The man behind the plot is Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagah), a Russian oligarch and financial giant, who is buying up U.S. treasury bonds under shell companies and plans to unload them simultaneously with the attack. Only problem is, Jack isn’t a field agent. He's in over his head and when he’s sent to Moscow to audit Cherevin, his fiancé Cathy (Keira Knightley) decides to come along for the trip, much to the annoyance of his handler, Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner).

Being a spy film in the modern era, Shadow Recruit is heavily influenced by the Bourne films and Daniel Craig's run as James Bond. For instance, when Jack arrives in Moscow, one of Cherevin’s men (Nonso Azonie) picks Jack up at the airport and tries to kill him after they arrive at the luxury hotel where Jack’s staying. Jack has to remember his training as a marine to fend off the hitman, and the moment where Jack kills the hitman and becomes operational occurs in the washroom—a blatant reminder of the opening of Casino Royale. The connection to the Bourne films comes from the frenetic style of the film, as well as the Russian sleeper agents meant to carry out the terrorist attack in the U.S., who work as mirrors to the assets in the Bourne series stalking Jason Bourne and repeatedly trying to kill him.

And yet, the film also makes a deliberate effort to incorporate old-fashioned aspects of the spy genre. Instead of dealing with Islamic terrorists or Chinese ultranationalists, the film positions Russia as the main opponent to the United States in the modern day. It’s almost nostalgic for the Cold War, where Americans knew whom the enemy was and the war was fought in the shadows. This results in the film being closer to what we’d expect from the Jack Ryan character than the previews initially promised, even if Shadow Recruit isn’t based off any one Tom Clancy novel.

This Cold War veneer also allows Kenneth Branagh to revel in the role of the Russian villain, a character lifted straight out of 1970s and 1980s cinema. Branagh, as both director and actor, appears to be having so much fun with Shadow Recruit his amusement is infectious. In front of the camera, he uses his thespian prowess to infuse his stock villain character with charm and wit. Behind the camera, Branagh keeps the action moving. He relies a little too heavily on the Bourne shaky-camera aesthetic, but his editing is clear and he never allows the film to lose momentum. He makes Shadow Recruit a diverting work of entertainment.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is fun, generic filmmaking. It succeeds due to the modesty of its characters and filmmaking. While the stakes of Cherevin’s plot to crash the American economy may be as high as the genre allows, the actions onscreen never stretch the imagination beyond its limit. Shadow Recruit is most alive in its subterfuge, where Jack Ryan, the wide-eyed optimistic, all-American Boy Scout who knows more about tracking stocks than killing bad guys, is left out in the cold and forced to use his wits to save himself. Because in the end, although car chases and fist fights are involved, it’s ultimately an economist behind a computer sifting through business reports who saves the day.

6 out of 10

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014, U.S.A./Russia)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh; written by Adam Cozad and David Koepp based on characters created by Tom Clancy; starring Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, and Kenneth Branagh.