Tom Clancy’s CIA hero Jack Ryan returns to the screen in a workmanlike if unoriginal reboot – “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.”
Hardcore fans of espionage thrillers will recognize it as “Bond Lite,” a prequel about how Jack Ryan wasn’t just some mild-mannered numbers cruncher and desk jockey when he first joined the agency. But director Kenneth Branagh, his new Ryan (Chris Pine), and co-stars Kevin Costner as Jack’s handler and Keira Knightley Ryan’s love interest make sure that it’s never less than efficient and reasonably entertaining.
This Ryan was an economics student in Britain when 9/11 happened, a smart cookie who enlisted in the Marines, was injured in combat and met his lady love (Knightley) in rehab. Costner plays Harper, a mysterious Navy commander who recruits Jack to be a C.I.A. agent working (illegally) on Wall Street, sniffing around for shady terrorist deposits. Clancy never would have made that sort of basic violation of the C.I.A. charter, but hey, a Brit directed, so what can you do? And playing up Ryan’s military background makes his ability to handle himself in life-or-death brawls less surprising than the Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford versions of the character.
Jack gets wind of gigantic Russian holdings of U.S. currency, holdings that can only do us harm if they sell them all at once. So Harper ships his desk jockey to Moscow to pry the truth out of Russian oligarch Vitkor Cherevin, played by Branagh.
There’s a ticking clock to the proceedings. The fiance thinks Jack is cheating on her, and she gets mixed up in his business. Branagh does his best Russian villain, one who answers to former ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov as a Kremlin insider.
Working in the film’s favor are the performances. Knightley does an American accent, and everybody has a great rapport with everybody else – Costner with Pine, Pine with Knightley, Knightley with Branagh. It’s a movie of romantic and dramatic close-ups of actors in dialogue scenes, jumpy, jerky photography edited into a blur in the action beats.
Working against it – that famed Clancy precision, the technology that never fails, the tradecraft that has spies prepared for any contingency. And sadly, once it breaks that spell of omnipotence, the movie turns more predictable – car chases, shootouts, a manic hunt for terror suspects.
But that said, Branagh and company keep up appearances with a thriller that works mainly because all of its parts – locations, fights and plot twists – are well worn from the thrillers they’ve been in before.