“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” opens Friday at Point, Eastgate and Star Cinemas. 1:45, PG-13, two and a half stars out of four.
Paramount Pictures must have had one overriding fear — that the rights to Jack Ryan, the late Tom Clancy’s two-fisted CIA analyst, had been languishing for over a decade (since 2002’s “The Sum of All Fears”), and with Clancy’s passing, interest might vanish altogether.
So “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” feels like a hasty attempt at a reboot, a not-bad spy thriller with well-staged action sequences and fine detail work by its actors, all hung on the simplest and flimsiest of plot threads. This is the first Ryan movie not based on a Clancy novel, and it shows: how could Clancy possibly have written 900 pages about this?
“Can you ever lose that boy-scout-on-a-field-trip look?” Ryan’s mentor Harper (Kevin Costner) asks wryly. Given that Ryan is played by Chris Pine, the answer is definitely no. This Ryan is even younger than Ben Affleck’s 2002 model; the movie opens with him as a college student, moved by 9/11 to join the military and fight in Afghanistan, where he’s injured in a helicopter crash.
Harper recruits him straight out of Walter Reed to join the CIA as a financial analyst, joining a Wall Street investment firm as its compliance firm while covertly looking into funding for terrorist groups. Ryan finds that a Russian billionaire, Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, who also directed) has been buying up hundreds of billions in U.S. Treasury bonds, propping up the value of the dollar.
Ryan instantly, and somewhat mystifyingly; he plans to orchestrate a terrorist attack on American soil, then sell off all the bonds, plunging the United States into economic chaos. How Ryan figures this out, and why he figures it out so early in the movie, is a bit of a puzzle. It really leaves the movie nowhere to go dramatically — no twists, no double-crosses, nothing you would expect out of a spy movie. Instead, Ryan heads to Moscow, he and Cherevin size each other up, have some dinner, and then Ryan gets down to the business of foiling Cherevin’s plot.
The film has some good setpieces, including a brutal fight with an assassin in a swanky hotel bathroom and a nighttime break-in into Cherevin’s offices (with all the requisite “Get out of there, Jack!” dialogue). And the ticking-bomb finale is genuinely suspenseful; Branagh follows the lead and the Bourne and 007 movies by keeping the car chases and fistfights as seemingly realistic as possible.
But the connective tissue between the shootouts is awfully thin, especially the film’s attempt to add a romantic subplot between Ryan and his girlfriend Cathy (Keira Knightley, way overqualified for a girlfriend role), a doctor who doesn’t know about Jack’s secret life.
Still, “Jack Ryan” is competently-made entertainment, which is often the best we can hope for in the doldrums of January. Pine, who I quite like as Captain Kirk in the “Star Trek” reboots, is fine as Ryan, and it’s a role he could grow into if the series turns into a franchise. The supporting characters do effective work; Branagh brings both menace and pathos to Cherevin, and Costner is great as the soft-spoken, world-weary CIA minder Harper.
I couldn’t help but imagine another, better Jack Ryan reboot where Costner played Ryan as a seen-it-all, pushing-retirement agent roped in for one last assignment. It seems like it would make sense both dramatically and financially, since the most devoted audience for “Jack Ryan” will be the nation’s dads anyway.