Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character has led to one of the oddest franchises in modern history, with as many men playing the character as have played Batman over the last twenty five years. Paramount decided to reboot the franchise with their Star Trek leading man Chris Pine for the modern era with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and the results are mixed. This is mostly because director Kenneth Branagh is a bad fit for the material.

The Players:

The Plot:

After 9/11, Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) decides to sign up for the military and is shot down in Afghanistan. After a long recuperation process, helped by Dr. Cathy Muller (Knightley), he is recruited by Thomas Harper to join the CIA. He mostly works on Wall Street, but when he sees that Viktor Cherevin (Branagh) is moving around a lot of stocks, he thinks that Cherevin might be a part of a terrorist plot, and so he goes to Russia, though his fiancee Muller is worried that he might be having an affair so she comes a little bit later. It turns out that Viktor is hatching an evil scheme, and this accountant is forced into action hero mode.

The Good:

  • The Pieces: This is meant to be a franchise-starter, and like Branagh’s previous film Thor, one gets the feeling that the pieces are right. The trio of Pine, Knightley and Costner working together makes for a potent and agreeable cocktail, and their interactions keep the film alive.
  • Slightly Brainier: Most action movies of late, even when they involve smart people, tend to settle in on some pretty dumb ideas, and though the premise that America is threatened by Russian financiers has little teeth, the film is more chess than checkers as the players try to put the pieces together on what’s happening around them.

The Bad:

  • Branagh’s Direction: When you think about The Hunt for Red October, if that film’s become something of a classic it’s not because of action scenes, it’s because of the smart direction and script. But when the film has to deliver a set piece it does. Branagh is great with actors, but when he’s shooting action sequences — even with great second unit directors like Vic Armstrong — it’s messy and not composed well. There’s a fight toward the end in a sewer that’s borderline incoherent, and after twenty plus years of directing, it’s embarrassing that Branagh can’t do certain things. He’s got no great personality behind the camera, and is at his best when adapting Shakespeare, but I don’t think he loves cinema that much.
  • Light on the Action: Sure, this is brainier, but it feels a little cheap in the scheme of things. Shot in Russia, there’s only a couple of set pieces, with the best being a dinner scene. Let me repeat: A dinner scene is the best part of the movie, and when the film has to go bigger, it just doesn’t deliver anything of great worth.
  • Backstory: The film opens with the origins of Jack Ryan. I guess in rebooting a series this is a useful tool for recreating a popular character, but it’s also deadly dull, and there’s a helicopter sequence that only has one place it can go. Occasionally the film has some nice grace notes, like Knightley making Pine wait to take some pills, or much of Costner’s work in the film, But it’s such a thin movie that it feels like this whole opening sequence is padding — other than suggesting Ryan signed up and got involved because of 9/11.
  • Keira Knightley’s American Accent: Knightley has shown over the course of the last decade that she’s one of our best working actresses in films like Never Let Me Go, and more (but if you haven’t seen Never Let Me Go, it’s one of the best films of the twenty-first century and she’s phenomenal in it). The character of Ryan’s wife has been British before, so I don’t know why Keira’s stuck doing an American accent that robs her of some of her verbal precision. It’s not a bad America accent, it just makes her less interesting, and you don’t want to cripple someone’s gifts, so it makes no sense.


The performers are all in place for an excellent Jack Ryan movie, but this isn’t it. Less bad than forgettable, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is — much like its source material — good for watching on planes, but there’s nothing here for any discerning fan of action, or fans of The Hunt for Red October, which remains the best of the Clancy adaptations.

Rating: 6.9/10

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recuit opens January 17.