Jack Ryan: A Shadow of His Former Self

I can’t explain the drawn-out evaporation of director Kenneth Branagh's early promise, but very quickly in his career his movies stopped being intriguing.

Uri Klein
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Uri Klein

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit Directed by Kenneth Branagh; written by Adam Cozad and David Koepp, based on characters created by Tom Clancy; with Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh is a mystery to me. While still in his twenties he burst to the forefront of British theater and film, winning Oscar nominations as both director and actor for his 1989 version of “Henry V.” People called him the new Laurence Olivier (whose first movie as director, in 1944, was also an adaptation of the same Shakespeare play) and the new Orson Welles (supposedly with a less bumpy career ahead of him). He and his then wife, Emma Thompson, were the young royal couple of British theater and film. The year his first movie was released, Branagh also saw fit to publish an autobiography (“Beginning”).

Now, 24 years after “Henry V,” Branagh has directed “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” a run-of-the-mill thriller that brings Tom Clancy’s espionage hero back to the big screen after a 12-year absence. The movie is not actually based on a novel by Clancy (who died last October, aged 66), but on a so-called “original” screenplay – not really the most appropriate of adjectives. Between 1989 and now, Branagh made some more Shakespeare screen adaptations, including “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993), “Hamlet” (1996) and “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (2000); an embarrassing version of “Frankenstein” (1994); an even more embarrassing and completely unnecessary remake of Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth” (2007); and various other movies, only one of which – his second feature, the romantic thriller “Dead Again” (1991) – demonstrated any unusual directing ability.

Nor have Branagh’s appearances as an actor, including in his own films, been feats of cinematic performance; on the contrary, in fact. Something about his screen presence is cold, alienating and somewhat monotonous. I can’t explain the drawn-out evaporation of his early promise, but very quickly in his career Branagh’s movies stopped being intriguing. If he ever thrills us again, that will be the real surprise.

In 2011, Branagh directed the mythological comic-book fantasy “Thor,” which became a worldwide hit. That may explain why the producers of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” decided to entrust him with a contemporary action thriller. Branagh certainly proves up to the task, but the result bears no distinctive mark of his own: any Hollywood professional at work today might have made it. It feels as though Branagh worked here as a passionless gun-for-hire, mainly trying to create an action thriller that looks like an action thriller should. The result seems to be stringed together from scenes we’ve encountered in many other movies of its ilk.

If “Jack Ryan: Shadow 
Recruit” has one main virtue that we can perhaps attribute to Branagh’s artistic wisdom, it is that the movie is somehow modest, with neither the ostentation or the overheated sentiment often found in American action thrillers. Unfortunately, despite this modesty, the result is still a picture dominated by action that carries no additional level of story or ideas.

As happened in other cinematic franchises, such as the James Bond or Superman movies, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” attempts to reboot the series by going back to the hero’s origins as an action hero. Apparently, what set Jack (Chris Pine) on his path to heroic deeds was his time as a student at the London School of Economics, when he saw the 9/11 attack on television and was shocked into patriotic action. He fought in Afghanistan, was injured and treated by a doctor, Cathy (Keira Knightley), with whom he became romantically involved. After recovering, he is recruited by the CIA, where, thanks to his education, he becomes a Wall Street analyst into financial schemes. (Kevin Costner plays the veteran agent who recruits and trains him, and his quiet, restrained performance is one of the movie’s pleasures.)

The mission on which Jack is dispatched has to do with the current tensions between the United States and Russia. Set largely in Moscow, it involves an evil oligarch, Viktor Cherevin (played by Branagh himself). One aspect of the story, which also draws in Cathy, brings to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s Cold War thriller “Torn Curtain” (1966), although it is developed with less emotional complexity.

In general, the plot is full of holes and packed with far-fetched scenes. While lapses in logic are not usually a problem in movies of this kind, and can actually be part of the fun, in this case they do damage the film, which purports to give us a believable picture of today’s economic and political reality. There is a Russian attempt to cripple the U.S. economy and another terrorist attack is on the horizon. But all this doesn’t add up to more than a hollow thriller whose ability to seize our attention is very limited.

Chris Pine, who has become a star thanks to his role as a far more famous fictional character – Captain Kirk, in the recent “Star Trek” movies – now follows in the footsteps of Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck, all of whom have played Jack Ryan (Ford did it twice, in “Patriot Games” (1992) and “Clear and Present Danger” (1994)). He does a credible enough job, but something is still missing – something that, for lack of a better word, I’d have to call “personality.”

Pine is handsome, moves naturally in front of the camera, performs the action scenes skillfully, but still lacks some kind of distinction as a movie star. In this sense, at least, he is entirely compatible with the movie as a whole.

This photo released by Paramount Pictures shows Kenneth Branagh, center, as Viktor Cherevin in "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions.Credit: AP