– Summary –
Director : Kenneth Branagh
Year Of Release : 2014
Principal Cast : Chris Pine, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Alec Utgoff, Nonso Anozie, Colm Feore, Gemma Chan, David Paymer, Karen David, Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Approx Running Time : 105 Minutes
Synopsis: Young analyst Jack Ryan is recruited by the CIA to seek out and report on financial transactions throughout the US markets in order to prevent another 9/11.
What we think : Shadow Recruit reboots the Tom Clancy franchise begun with Hunt For Red October, continued with Patriot Games and Clear & Present Danger, then all but collapsed in Sum Of All Fears, and to a large degree does a solid job. The plot is undemanding, Chris Pine makes a worthwhile Jack Ryan, and Kenneth Branagh backs up his efforts on Thor with a workmanlike action-lite effort here, so in that respect you could call this film a success. Compared to modern films of a similar ilk, however, Shadow Recruit doesn’t quite get the job done. Above average, only barely.
Fairly dim shadows.
A good espionage thriller needs to grip you early, grip you hard, and grip you entirely. A poor espionage thriller often can’t quite achieve any of that, even though initial reactions might indicate otherwise. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the reboot by Paramount of their fairly popular Jack Ryan franchise, goes absolutely flat-chat trying to keep your attention through all its twists and turns, even when those twists and turns aren’t really that smart… or even twists or turns. In pulling double duty of re-establishing the character of Ryan (and his girlfriend/fiancee/eventual wife Cathy) as well as modernizing the franchise for the post 9/11 era (Sum Of All Fears, the last film in the series, was released in May of 2002, some 9 months after September 11, even though production had wrapped prior to the attacks) Shadow Recruit delivers some fairly minor espionage action, plenty of computer screens, Keira Knightley looking hot, and Chris Pine working those baby blue eyes with all his strength – not to mention a nice nasty turn by Branagh as the central villain, and Kevin Costner growling his way though a “CIA mentor” role. Does Shadow Recruit grip you like it should, or needs to? Is it a worthy entry into the Ryan canon, or is it merely another pretender to the action dreck flooding the cineplexes?
Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is a university student at the time of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington. Signing up for the miluitary, he is badly wounded in Afghanistan and spends time at a rehab center under the care of Doctor Cathy Muller (Keria Knightley), where he is recruited by the CIA, led by Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), to go undercover at a major financial institution to root out potentially more terror attacks, or funding for them. Jack uncovers some suspicious transactions through a firm in Russia, owned by Viktor Cheverin (Kenneth Branagh), who has plans to decimate the world’s financial markets by causing another terrorist attack in America, and then dumping his stock options across the board. As Ryan learns more about Cheverin’s plan, and begins to fathom the scale of what will transpire, the race is on to locate not only the place the attack will occur, but the time, and that time is fast running out.
On the surface, Shadow Recruit does almost everything right. From its star power down to its breathless bomb-countdown finale, the film offers plenty of vicarious thrills that no doubt most audiences will lap up as solid spy-game entertainment. However, Shadow Recruit isn’t as intelligent or entertaining as it seems to think it is. Oh, it’s entertaining, sure, but only superficially. Where I had a problem with Shadow Recruit was in the fact that it’s all superficial. This film is robotic, join-the-dots generic, the kind of shallow, flashy wannabe Bourne Identity slash James Bond actioner that is light on passion and heavy on keeping the audience confused by espionage double-talk and technological tomfoolery. Shadow Recruit escapes utter derision largely on the back of its solid cast – all of whom raise the material far above the level it should be accorded – and some equally solid work by director Kenneth Branagh.
According to the internet, Branagh pretty much fell into directing Shadow Recruit when another project had fallen through, and although you get the sense that he’s having a whale of a time making an outright action flick like this (especially in light of his sci-fi/fantasy turn with Thor), there’s a distinct lack of passion behind the camera. Branagh seems to have found that weird disconnect with what transpires on the screen, and the audience’s involvement in it. It’s as if there’s a glass of don’t-care between the film and the audience, some kind of shade of disinterest that prohibits Shadow Recruit from truly engaging the viewer with character truth or any real, meaningful tension. It’s hard to countenance with the passion obviously displayed by the people in the film, particularly Chris Pine as Ryan himself, but the film remains rather distant to the viewer thanks largely to a mechanical, constructed feeling pervading it from the opening.
Chris Pine makes an interesting and identifiable Jack Ryan. He’s young, cocky (almost), smart and trying to balance his abilities with his potential, and Pine plays him almost without a skerrick of a flaw. Ryan in this film is a CIA robot, an emotionless cypher through which the plot advances, and nothing more. Hell, not even his relationship with Knightley’s Cathy feels organic, instead it feels like some CIA subterfuge designed to throw us and the Bad Guys off guard. Knightley herself does a nice job with an American accent, although as a character Cathy remains pretty much a blank slate – she never feels like her own person, rather somebody revolving around Jack Ryan for the good of us all. It’s a minor role expanded to a major appearance, and although Knightley is good enough to recognize this fact and lift the role into something relatively empathetic, in the end her character is all but written out of the movie. Kevin Costner plays his now-patented Father Figure role, as Tom Harper, shadowing and shuffling Ryan into the areas and situations he needs to be in in order to facilitate an outcome – Harper is a user, sure, but he seems to know what he’s doing. Branagh, who pulls double duty as both director and chief villain of the film (or are they one and the same? LOL!), makes for a great, nasty Big Bad Guy, and he plays it to the hilt.
Technically, the film looks, sounds, and feels rock solid. Patrick Doyle’s pulsating score is evocative but generic, utterly unmemorable, while Branagh’s Thor DP Haris Zambarloukos makes the film look as polished as any big budget actioner should. It’s so shiny!!! I am glad, however, that I saw Shadow Recruit on a small screen; the editing in this film is more often discombobulating to the point of incoherence. When the action kicks off, Branagh falls into the oft-lamented trap of cutting to different angles almost every second, in the even more lamented shaky-cam style, never once really giving us a sense of place and time within each setting. A frantic car chase through Moscow’s streets, as well as the pulsating conclusion through the streets of Manhattan, make for exciting, if tempestuously incoherent, stuff. The film’s Mission Impossible inspired centerpiece, however, is Ryan’s infiltration of Cheverin’s office building while he’s supposed to be across the street with Cheverin and Cathy, dining out. While Pine isn’t a Tom Cruise, at least not yet, the sequence is fairly exciting and as a key moment in the film works a treat.
Look, you’ll have a ball watching Shadow Recruit, as a newbie to Jack Ryan’s adventures or as somebody who sat through Sum of All Fears, because it hits all the key markers for a good espionage thriller. The cast provide more than adequate support for a fairly bland story, and there are almost no twists and turns you can’t see coming a mile away – hell, even the frantic “search every outhouse, doghouse and shithouse” routine lacks punch late in the game – but it’s competent, diverting and as shallow as a puddle. No, it’s not a patch on the stakes Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan had to encounter, and even against contemporary films of the genre (check out The Peacemaker, of any of the Bourne films, for high-stakes thrillers, as examples) it flails about like it’s lost amongst the weeds most of the time. But it is pleasant enough without being decisive, so if you like vanilla flavored cinema, or bland, unsalted fish and chips, then Shadow Recruit is probably the film for you.