Approaching a film directed by Kenneth Branagh, I cannot pretend my expectations were low. Of all the actors of our generation, Branagh ranks in the elites. His understanding of characters and strong story telling has consistently shown him to be more than a passing phenomenon. His work in the Shakespearean genre alone is dazzling. Let it be noted, too, that it was Kenneth Branagh who directed the first Thor movie. Yes, the Marvel one. Let that settle for a second. If you please.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is based on the Tom Clancy character that appears in numerous novels and a number of films played by the likes of Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck. Each film carries the same general storyline and the same movement of personality. There is always Jack Ryan, the CIA analyst that will rise from cog-in-the-machine simpleton to essential America-saving-patriot. Guiding Ryan is some handler or mentor who gives him spots and blurbs of experienced thought. In a few films, including Shadow Recruit, there is Ryan’s wife Cathy Muller, a surgeon. Nearly every Ryan film features an atomic weapon. While this, by now, seems cliche, it might be fair to say that the the tension provided by mass destruction is what has defined these films. But more on this in a bit.
In Shadow Recruit, Jack Ryan (Pine) enters as an exchange student in London who is inspired to join the Marines while watching the 9/11 attacks on Manhattan. In a few minutes, Ryan becomes an elite soldier and is then shot down in a helicopter over Afghanistan and severely injured. While learning to walk again under the guidance of an abrupt Dr. Muller (Knightly), Ryan is approached by Thomas Harper (Costner) who offers him a job as a secret CIA analyst. Fast-forward 10 years and Ryan is a Wall Street compliance officer and an undercover CIA agent.
The story clicks right along as Ryan uncovers a scheme by an angry Russian, Viktor Cherevin (Branagh), to collapse the American economy and simultaneously detonate a nuclear bomb in New York City. Ryan is thrown into life-threatening situations and handles them with like a good Clancy character. He fights an assassin, orchestrates and pulls off a scheme to penetrate Cherevin’s elite security system, hunts down an impossibly hidden nuclear bomb, and fights a sleeper-agent who has killed everyone he’s touched.
It would be easy to call out Shadow Recruit for being generic and predictable. And perhaps it is. But the film comes from a category of films that have the same story, and to throw it out for not being “unique” would be like throwing out an apple because it’s too much like the others in the fridge. At the same time, this film exemplifies a problem that runs across a number of the Tom Clancy films.
Branagh’s acting job as Cherevin is admirable. From his cold stance to his small twitches and tight Russian mumbling, the Irishman portrays a strong and memorable character. It is impressive, but much like a captain on a sinking ship is impressive. Pine and Knightly both pale very quickly next to Branagh, even with more screen time and lines. Knightly in particular does a poor job. I had her pegged as a double agent the whole movie. It wasn’t till the credits rolled that I realized I had over-read her; she is simply a terrible actress. Costner too came as a strangely distant character. In the first act he seemed quite important, standing imposingly above a recovering Ryan in tight military uniform. But when most needed, all he gives Ryan is some quick advice and a golden retriever for company.
The point is this: Shadow Recruit loses the affection of its audience because it loses personality. Poor acting and trivial characters don’t grab our empathy; they give us a good reason to run for a refill. A nuclear threat itself is the same thing. Impersonal. The grandness is necessary in the Clancy style, because of how massive the concept is. If the franchise generally hinges upon the threat global catastrophe, how could the latest installment resist incorporating the same idea? The possible devastation does not engross the imagination. Entertainment is progressive. A nuclear bomb isn’t terrifying because it isn’t personal. To be honest, the most grabbing bad guy in the film was the wordless sleeper agent, and not because he builds a bomb. The first two scenes in which we find him, he is killing people with a knife. It is close and real. A large bomb is none of those things.
Shadow Recruit is not an impressive movie. It is not a new or even nuanced portrayal of the same story of stopping a nuclear war. If anything, though, it does reveal something interesting about its’ audience. Jack Ryan appears in 6 different films, all of which have drawn millions of dollars, portrayed by 4 different actors. Viewers are not fools. They know the story coming at them. Every time they see Jack Ryan rise from common analyst to globally important expert. His talent is realized and without fail he saves the country and often the whole globe in an hour of real crisis. And we love it. That alone is worth tossing around for a thought. Why do we admire that kind of hero? What do we love about that kind of man?