The Pitch: We don’t need another hero. Let’s just reboot one of the old ones again.
The Review: We love spy movies, don’t we? From the suave sophistication of James Bond to the amnesiac thrashings of Jason Bourne, we can’t get enough of secrets, lies and organisational subterfuge. For some reason, the adventures of Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst Jack Ryan have never quite caught the imagination of cinema audiences to the same extent: The Hunt For Red October is fondly remembered, but Alec Baldwin was quickly replaced by Harrison Ford, and subsequently nearly a decade passed before the series and the character were rebooted, this time with Ben Affleck. As more than a dozen years have elapsed since The Sum Of All Fears, Paramount clearly felt Ryan was ripe for another reboot and this time Chris Pine’s been enlisted to protect, to serve and to sneak into darkened rooms late at night. Where all of the previous Ryan’s have used Clancy novels as a starting point, this latest Ryan adventure follows that other, more recent movie tradition: the origin story.
Part of the reason for avoiding the rest of Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels is that most of those not yet adapted deal with terrorist attacks leading to Ryan becoming president, ending up at war with Japan and someone flying a plane into the U.S. Capitol building. It’s maybe an uncomfortable irony that Shadow Recruit opens with Ryan studying at the London School Of Economics when 9/11 happens and encourages him to enlist. One major helicopter accident later and Ryan is recovering in hospital, being goaded back to health by student medic Cathy (Kiera Knightley) and visited by, you guessed it, shadowy military type Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) who secretly recruits him into the CIA. Ryan uncovers evidence of dodgy Russian goings-on and is dispatched to Moscow to investigate further, only to come up against the henchmen of businessman Viktor Cheverin (Kenneth Branagh), bent on sending the world into a financial meltdown which will see Russia come out on top.
Branagh both nibbles on the corners of the scenery and directs, but it’s difficult to see any innovation in either. Working from a script by Adam Kozad and David Koepp, Branagh has crafted not so much as a throwback spy thriller but one that’s stuck back, somewhere in the Sixties. While the overarching plot machinations have a distinctly modern twist, with Russian dealings in the economy rather than the arms race of the Cold War, the CIA apparently hasn’t moved on past men being passed documents in darkened cinemas or exchanging looks and guns on poorly lit park benches at night. If you’re looking for an honest to goodness, old fashioned spy thriller, then Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit certainly fits that bill. Sadly, it fits it so well that there’s very little which will surprise you if you’re a fan of the genre, and most of it’s been done better elsewhere.
Take the highlight of the film, which consists of a central stretch where Ryan attempts to invade a building and capture info while the rest of his team work distraction and cover: it’s Mission: Impossible but without the dangling wires and suspense, and it segues into a car chase notable only for the odd decision to threaten a victim with a light bulb. An early bathroom fight recalls the opening of Casino Royale, the car chases have more than a touch of Bourne and the climax feels like a thousand other generic action movies that you’ve seen before (topped off with an explosion that feels cut and paste from a Die Hard sequel, of all things). Chris Pine feels more at home playing blue collar workers and starship captains than he does as a CIA analyst and spy, and it doesn’t help that he has zero chemistry with Keira Knightley either. Kevin Costner is good value, although never gets out of third gear, and Branagh’s strangulated Russian vowels are never less than entertaining, but this is undemanding and generic fare. Maybe it would be best to shake things up with an intercontinental war, for this retro thriller has at best retro thrills.
Why see it at the cinema: The larger set-pieces will benefit from being seen in a cinema, but it’s not massively cinematic. No-one would fault you for waiting for the DVD.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate violence, injury detail and one use of strong language. Spying is still, it would seem, a fairly civilised pastime.
My cinema experience: A packed Friday night at the Cambridge Cineworld, and as I was seeing a double bill of this and Lone Survivor I felt the need for sustenance in the form of that classic combo, Diet Coke and Maltesers. Sadly in my desire to get fed I managed to miss the first 30 seconds or so – and end up having to sit almost in the front row – after barely twenty minutes of ads and trailers. Still, you won’t hear me complaining too much.
The Score: 5/10