In the decades after the Cold War, much of the landscape of clandestine warfare had transformed itself from the confines of blacklists and microfilm to the vast ether of information and data across the globe. Spies and their craft had changed, and with it, Hollywood’s portrayal. The practice had gone from jabbing someone with a poison-tipped umbrella to taking down entire nations with access from a computer; and so Hollywood had to evolve its sleuths from uber charming, yet seemingly unflappable womanizers to flawed, troubled and broken men. Jason Bourne became the modern day spy. James Bond became Jason Bourne and almost every spy since, has had a Bourneness to them that we, the movie-going audience seem to relate to. There’s now a vulnerability grounded in reality. Where once luxury sports cars turning into submarines was acceptable, it is now the norm for our agents to be armed with nothing more than a pistol, some training and their wit, facing their greatest of enemies in the reality we all find ourselves in.
Jack Ryan, perhaps author Tom Clancy’s finest creation, has been off grid since the Ben Affleck-starring The Sum of All Fears in 2002. It was an admirable entry into the Jack Ryan series but lacked the tension and imminent fear that presented itself in previous Jack Ryan outings- most notably in the still terrific The Hunt For Red October. In the ten or so years proceeding, much has changed in the world, and while nuclear threat seems to loom far in the background, the prescient danger continues to be that of technological warfare threatening to undermine our most treasured of security: finance. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is the official reboot of the Jack Ryan franchise and sees our protagonist continue his Benjamin Button act since Harrison Ford last donned the title in 1994’s Clear And Present Danger. The character’s genesis is beginning at a younger age we are given more of his development before delving into the primary plot of the film.
Chris Pine’s Jack Ryan falls somewhere between Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford’s; young enough to be brash and reckless, but at the same time, boasting a quality that convinces audiences he will grow into the Jack Ryan of old. Pine is surrounded by a pretty well-to-do cast that includes Kevin Costner (playing Ryan’s mentor and super-agent William Harper), Keira Knightley (Ryan’s eventual love interest and femme fatale Cathy Muller) and the irrepressible Kenneth Branagh (pulling double duty serving as the film’s primary antagonist Viktor Cherevin, as well as its director). The film is stronger for their parts, and while Costner’s role is quite restrained, there is an air of importance to him that works within the confines of the film. We’re also given a colourful palette of characters breathing out the warm air of nostalgia with its heavy Russian-villain lean. It’s the film’s most prominent connection to the spy films of old, and perhaps, beneficial in giving Shadow Recruit a sense of freshness. Surprisingly, Knightley’s character displays the cast’s biggest single nitpicky flaw. Knightley’s strikingly beautiful accent is stripped of its allure as she yams and yahs through a pretty terrible American accent. It’s the ‘Charlize Theron in Monster’ of accents (and not in the ‘winning an Oscar for the performance’ kind of way).
Unlike The Sum of All Fears, we’re given the less far-reaching plot of espionage cloaked in today’s turbulent and volatile financial landscape. Jack Ryan, CIA analyst, is tasked on uncovering a Russian plot to destroy America by crippling its financial structure. It’s all smartly done with the kind of explanatory tone that never breaches into condescension or overly smart. We’re given a look into the evolution of the Jack Ryan character- from tired economics student to battered and broken marine, and finally to the film’s primary voice; the analyst. While the film progresses over the course of a decade, it never grows tiresome and moves briskly through its narrative stages. The action is thick and heavy, and we’re once again grounded in the kind of hand to hand combat The Bourne Identity cemented as the preferred palette. The pace is comfortable and the dialogue smart, and much of the film exudes the kind of excitement and tension The Hunt For Red October is noted for.
Branagh’s direction resonates beautifully amongst the steel and structure of both New York City and Moscow; and in a particularly harrowing scene between himself and Knightley’s character, given a real sense of isolated terror and impending doom. Who knew lightbulbs could be so dangerous?
The spy genre may be one of the fields of film that has excelled the most in the post 9/11 world. They’re more grounded and realistic and to that extent, far more believable. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is an exciting new beginning for the franchise, and while it may not be as alluring as the original Jason Bourne outing, the Jack Ryan franchise hasn’t felt this right since the early 90s.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is in the cinemas now.
JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Adam Cozad, David Koepp
Cast: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh
Released by: Paramount Pictures
Running time: 105 minutes