Review – 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit' Capable But Not Memorable

Back in 1990, we were introduced to Jack Ryan via the big-screen adaptation of Tom Clancy’s best seller Cold War spy novel The Hunt For Red October. While the lead actor changed several times over the next 20-plus years, the franchise proved consistently successful and spawned four sequels. The most recent, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, attempts to reboot the franchise and take it back to its Cold War espionage-thriller roots. It succeeds on several levels, fails on others, and ultimately offers an acceptable albeit not particularly stand-out restart for the series.

The Hunt For Red October is still the second-highest-grossing entry in the Jack Ryan franchise, following only Clear and Present Danger‘s $215 million take. While the original film featured Alec Baldwin as Ryan, Harrison Ford took over in the sequel — Patriot Games, easily the best movie in the entire Jack Ryan franchise, despite being the lowest-grossing — and then reprised the role in the follow-up Clear and Present Danger.

It was eight years before we saw Jack Ryan again, in the attempted reboot Sum of All Fears starring Ben Affleck as Ryan and attempting to show us his “origin story.” That film was successful enough, grossing about $194 million and introducing the modern fear of terrorism into the political-thriller franchise for the first time. Yet no sequel was forthcoming, and the series lagged for more than a decade.

You might be surprised to know that the series has so far amassed more than $788 million worldwide, and added enough on global home entertainment sales and rentals to push the series toward at least $850 million or more. So if a new film could just manage to continue the general box office performance the franchise is used to, Jack Ryan would easily pass $1 billion in revenue. Meaning, of course, a new film was inevitable, even if it took several years.

Now we have actor Chris Pine taking over duties as Jack Ryan in the newest film that opened this weekend, in what is an even clearer version of the “origin story.” The film opened to $5.4 million on Friday, and looks set for an opening weekend in the $15 million range. That’s less than half of what the franchise was taking on opening weekends in during the 1990s, and with mixed reviews so far it’s not going to get a big boost out of critical reception, either.

So unless it manages particularly strong audience word-of-mouth to give it legs and lift it passed an initially low-end opening weekend, it seems destined for a domestic run in the $60+ million range depending on how it holds on the second and third weekends. Worldwide, it might get lucky and pull 65-70% of its total box office from foreign receipts, for a best-case scenario of somewhere in the neighborhood of $180 million overall. But that number frankly looks too optimistic, and I’d guess it’s headed for something closer to the $120-130 million range, at best.

I saw Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit at Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of the Film Independent, which included an enjoyable Q&A session with the film’s director Kenneth Branagh after the screening. Branagh mentioned that two key influences on his choices when making the film were the classic 1965 spy thriller film The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and the post-WWII thriller The Third Man (particularly in one key sequence of events). Those influences — particularly the 1960s and 1970s spy movies and paranoid political thrillers — are easy to recognize, and Branagh was smart to incorporate them, although I wish he’d incorporated them more and relied less on certain other modern cinematic tropes of the spy-action-thriller variety.

This time around, the series attempts to revive the Cold War thriller genre qualities that defined so many of Clancy’s novels and that drove The Hunt For Red October. The enemies are again Russians, the story again involves brinksmanship and techno-thriller sensibilities, and we spend the first half of the film watching Ryan seem entirely out of his element as a man not equipped for the violence and dangers of field work.

Indeed, the film is most successful when it mimics the oldschool political thrillers and spy films of the 1970s and 1980s. When it moves toward modern Jason Bourne and James Bond sort of action-driven car chases and fight sequences, with suddenly herky-jerky cameras and fast-cut edits, it suffers. The Jack Ryan films were always about a smarter, patient, more dramatic approach to storytelling and their spy stories. Ryan wasn’t a tough martial arts expert or soldier, he was an eager intelligence officer but a reluctant field agent.

And that highlights a key problem with the film overall — this new Jack Ryan isn’t a family man, he isn’t a brilliant history buff with a maturity that lends weight to his skills as an analyst whose life experiences give him special insights into events that others miss. He is instead a young man seemingly motivated by post-9/11 sense of duty to his country, and determined to overcome injuries that threaten to leave him in a wheelchair, and he’s apparently really smart about finances, but we don’t get much real sense of him as a character in his own rights the way we did in most of the previous entries in the franchise.

This Ryan’s personality seems like it could apply to just about any other action hero or lead male character in other films, give or take, and we aren’t shown any direct evidence of his analytical skills and specialties — instead, his eyes scan unseen/illegible data scrolling up a computer screen, and then he suddenly knows what’s going to happen next as if by psychic prediction.

Some of his assessments are such wild leaps of logic — when he figures out the real “evil plot” the villain has in store, for example — that I was left speechless. He looks at a set of financial data pointing in one direction, and not only intuits that it means something entirely different but also makes a sudden outrageous prediction of some other threat of which we’ve not seen a hint yet. It’s something he couldn’t reasonably have guessed based on anything in the film up to that point — but he needed to figure it out for the plot to progress, so he just imagines it out of thin air and everyone in the CIA trusts it to be true and acts on the speculation. Of course it is true, but he never should’ve guessed that in the first place.

My point is, the film doesn’t really earn such moments, and as a result Ryan is a character who starts off with a good backstory and initial entry into espionage that Chris Pine does quite well with, but nothing else is ever built upon that initial foundation and the character becomes a vague skeleton of character traits and behaviors instead of taking on real weight and personality. And it’s a shame, because Pine portrays the shaken and confused sequences so well — hands shaking, sweating and twitching subtly at sounds and movements around him, his voice taking on a higher pitch.

Which makes me realize something about Chris Pine — although Pine is best known for portraying Captain Kirk in the Star Trek movies and is generally thought of as an action-oriented star, his best moments in this film are early on when he is recovering from terrible injuries (sustained in the opening minutes of the film as a soldier), and when he is acting like a fish out of water amid the cloak and dagger moments he doesn’t quite understand. When he shifts into action-hero mode for the latter portion of the film, it becomes generic and far less interesting.

Had the film given him more scenes like those found in the first half, it would’ve been far better and more satisfying. Instead, the film goes from a methodically paced espionage thriller with a lead character who is in over his head, to an action movie that rushes from one thrill to the next and a character who out of the blue becomes an invincible action hero outrunning cars, riding motorcycles over jumps, dodging bullets, and beating trained assassins in fist-fights.

Meanwhile, the camera starts off lingering on interesting shots, subtly hints at movement in the shadows and around corners, and maintains a smarter pacing more interested in advancing the character’s situation instead of action plot-points; but when the story awkwardly switches gears into “action guy fights terrorists” mode, the pacing is all completely off, with a clipped montage sequence that plows through events to the point that the FBI seems to locate a suspect’s house, deploy a tactical team to move in and take over the premise, test for chemicals on the site, and then pass the information along and lock down a potential target site all in the space of about two to three minutes of screen time.

It’s hard to even keep up with how they’re figuring all of this out (and the crucial piece of the puzzle is supplied once again by Ryan making ridiculous leaps of logic based on seemingly random information that the CIA team is able to shout out to him because they just need to know it for the story to continue), or how they manage to do everything so fast that it’s all in the same morning/early afternoon. The use of fast-cut montage-like sequences is almost like they’re skipping over pages and pages of script because they’re running out of film time and need to get to the climax in a hurry.

Which is exactly the opposite of what a film like this needed, and the first half of the film seemed to in fact realize that’s true. What was so great about the first several Jack Ryan films is, the most interesting parts were watching them figure stuff out and then slowly set up what needed to be done next. All of the things this new film rushed over in those fast montage-like sequences were the stuff we most want and need to see for the film to be effective. And by taking time to show us the analysis side of things, and the planning side of things, we get a better glimpse into Ryan’s personality and his skills, we see him in real “action” that he’s best at, and all of those wild leaps of logic and jumps to conclusions would be removed by supplying a slower and more reasonable approach to figuring out what was going on.

I loved the first three Jack Ryan film. Patriot Games and The Hunt For Red October are two of the best spy/espionage thrillers around, and both films gave us not only terrific stories that took their time and were most interested in the cloak-and-dagger side of espionage, but they also presented a lead character clearly defined and with a strong, stand-out personality. Ford in particular was terrific in the role, because he understood that Jack Ryan is best portrayed as an Everyman who isn’t the strongest or fastest action guy in the room, he’s just the smartest and the most determined because in the end he does what he does to make the world safe for the woman he loves and his children. He has a solid moral compass, and a sense of outrage at injustice and incompetence, and we never doubted where it came from or wondered what motivates him.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit provides a capable enough story for about an hour, looks sharp, has a likeable lead actor and supporting cast who do their best with the material, and a director who for at least half of the film takes to heart the lessons of the classic spy thrillers that inspired him to make this film. It’s not a terrible film, and if you forget it’s a Jack Ryan film then the limitations and mistakes don’t sting quite as much because you won’t be thinking about the comparisons to what was achieved previously. But it’s also not very memorable, and if they plan any sequels they’ll need to go back to the beginning and remember what made Jack Ryan and his work so entertaining in the first place.

Here is the film’s trailer…

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Source: Forbes Business

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