This week sees the release of "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," the fifth feature built around the CIA analyst character created by the late Tom Clancy, an insurance salesman-turned-bestselling novelist, in a series of blockbuster novels. Unlike the previous adaptations, beginning with 1990's "The Hunt for Red October" and continuing through 2002's mostly forgettable "Sum of All Fears," this new Jack Ryan outing is based on an original story, loosely connected to the source material.
Chris Pine is the fourth actor to play the Ryan character, in a pseudo-origin story that finds the analyst dealing with nefarious Russians (and yes, it's a contemporary story). Keira Knightley costars as his put-upon fiancée and Kevin Costner shows up as his gruff agency handler. Kenneth Branagh plays the Russian gangster almost as broadly as his bad guy from Will Smith's "Wild Wild West." Branagh, in his new role as studio tent-pole filmmaker (following his above-average work on Marvel's "Thor"), also directed "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit."
Of course, after seemingly endless development and a Christmastime release date that came and went like a flurry of covert CIA telegrams, the biggest question is: Does anyone still care about Jack Ryan? And should anyone care?
1. This Jack Ryan Is Very Different
It's weird to think that, since "The Hunt for Red October," more actors have played Jack Ryan than James Bond. But it's true. Chris Pine's Jack Ryan is noticeably different from previous incarnations, which all relied, in some part, on the fact that Ryan isn't an action hero but a nebbish, socially awkward dork. There is no part of Chris Pine that screams dork. Also, instead of being a military analyst, he's a financial analyst, which puts him squarely in the world of "The Wolf of Wall Street." It also makes him incredibly unsympathetic. Now, whether or not these changes are good or bad is up to you to decide. The important thing to remember is that, if you're looking for the Jack Ryan of "Hunt for Red October" or even the Harrison Ford variation of "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger" (less insecure, more proactive, still kind of dweeby), you're not going to find it here.
2. Pine Doesn't Get to Kirk It Up
One of the casualties of the in-between Jack Ryan, who is clearly more macho than he's supposed to be (he dispatches a Ugandan thug like dispatching Ugandan thugs is a daily occurrence for him) but also attempting the "Hey, I'm just an analyst" shtick, is that it robs Chris Pine of his biggest asset as an actor: his swagger. It's this bravado that made him so engaging in J.J. Abrams's two "Star Trek" movies and Tony Scott's woefully under-appreciated runaway train movie "Unstoppable," and it's all but missing here.
3. It's Not Based on a Novel
Unlike the other Jack Ryan movies, this one is not based on a preexisting Tom Clancy novel. As such, it's free to invent its own "mythology," but at the same time seems somewhat pedestrian. The magic (if that's the right word) of Clancy's novels and adaptations was how detail-rich and specific everything was. In this movie, the filmmakers at one point cut away to a spy van filled with characters we've never met before, let alone seen. They must be people trusted and in Jack Ryan's inner circle, but we're never given the opportunity to know who they are. It's rather... odd. Generalities in place of specificity is never a good thing, especially in a movie whose world was, at one point, so vividly rendered.
4. Kevin Costner Is Pretty Fun
When producer Mace Neufeld, who still holds the rights to the Tom Clancy books and is credited here, first attempted to develop "The Hunt for Red October," he went to Kevin Costner. Costner was in the midst of meticulous pre-production on "Dances With Wolves" and turned the part down. Well, more than 20 years later, Costner returns to the Jack Ryan fold, this time as Ryan's growly mentor and handler. This is sort of the same character that James Earl Jones played in the first three Jack Ryan movies (Morgan Freeman played the character in the Ben Affleck-led "Sum of All Fears"), but with a different name and jokier attitude. As much as we love Costner, and he is pretty great here, it would have been nice to have a little, er, color in this exclusively white movie. Was Idris Elba really that busy that you couldn't have at least asked?
5. Keira Knightley Has Nothing to Do
Keira Knightly is an amazing actress who is frequently overlooked due to her overwhelming cuteness and her involvement in the massively successful "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise. Look no further than 2012's "Anna Karenina" to see the true scope and depth of her talent. The fact that she signed up for this probably meant that she had a few months off and needed to redo her bathroom. Because she has nothing (and I mean nothing) to do here, besides sit around and look cute and occasionally screech at Chris Pine. At one point she accuses him of being unfaithful. He tells her he's a spy. And it's completely resolved. Yeesh.
6. The Action Is Routine (and Familiar)
There isn't a whole lot of traditional action in the first Jack Ryan romp, "Hunt for Red October," and there were only a handful of memorable action sequences from the rest of the movies (most notably the Suburban ambush in "Clear and Present Danger"). But we're in a post-"Bourne," mid-Bond world, which means that "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" has to liberally borrow from both. The action isn't just routine it's way, way, way too familiar. In fashioning this new version of Jack Ryan, they could have at least given him some cool stunts.
7. There Is One Great Sequence
All that said, there is a really nifty sequence where Jack Ryan has to act like a drunken blowhard and leave his girlfriend to get hit on by the bad guy. Then he sneaks into that bad guy's office to download some files (or something -- the plot's pretty fuzzy). It's got a snap that the rest of the sequences don't have, and allows both Knightley and Pine to play. If the rest of the movie was more like this, then it'd be easier to recommend.
8. As a Bad Guy, Kenneth Branagh Is Great...
Kenneth Branagh, the Shakespearean great, is incredibly gifted at playing baddies. Just think back to his role as the legless, racist villain in "Wild Wild West" (a movie that, through sheer weirdness alone, should get more props). Here, he plays a dying Russian zealot who wants to return the country to its former glory by crippling the United States economy, through a combination of insider trading and terrorist plots. He is able to chew scenery pretty devilishly, and faces off against Pine with a brittle dangerousness. In short: he's a hoot.
9. ...As a Director of Action Movies, Not So Much
A couple of years ago, Branagh made Marvel's "Thor," a movie that was much better than it had any right being, aside from its over-reliance on Dutch angles and the fact that it was filmed on the phoniest looking "small town" set ever. Apparently, that film's success was enough to shoot him into the stratosphere of big-budget franchise movies. And we're left with "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," a movie that he doesn't direct as much as vaguely supervise.
10. There's a Huge Callback to 'The Hunt for Red October'
In "The Hunt for Red October," there's a brief interlude where two superior officers talk about how Jack Ryan was shot down and forced to learn how to walk again. This was an invention of that film's director, John McTiernan. Well, in "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," this aside is turned into about 20 minutes of the movie -- it's in recovery where he meets his fiancée, Cathy (Knightley), and shadowy operative boss (Costner). It's just funny how something so off-the-cuff can become canonized and filled with importance more than twenty years later.