Dismal "Jack Ryan" Reboot Squanders Solid Cast

With no more than 15 minutes left in our showing of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” the gentleman seated two rows in front of me gathered his jacket, leapt from his seat, and hurried for the exit, middle finger raised at the screen. The film had just morphed from a nonstarter of a spy pic into a crumpled mess of action clichés, and this moviegoer was obviously distraught at seeing the late Tom Clancy’s beloved Jack Ryan utterly lost in translation. There are more dignified ways of expressing disapproval at a film, but there’s something to be said for the succinctness of an obscene gesture aimed at everyone involved in the making of a movie. I toughed the rest of the film out, but I was with him in spirit.

It’s been over a decade since Ben Affleck flopped as Jack Ryan in “The Sum Of All Fears,” failing to reignite a film series that had seen substantial success in the early 90s (Alec Baldwin played Jack Ryan in “The Hunt For Red October,” while Harrison Ford took over the role in “Patriot Games” and “Clear And Present Danger”). Chris Pine has been given the unenviable task of trying to reboot the character once again, and the results are predictably disastrous. Bereft of the charisma he’s shown as Captain Kirk in “Star Trek,” and saddled with poor plotting and remarkably clunky dialogue, Pine has no choice but to go down with the ship that is “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.”

Directed by Kenneth Branagh (who also co-stars as the villain of the piece), “Shadow Recruit” features Pine playing the eponymous CIA analyst as appropriately steely but gets very little to do – aside from running and yelling. Lots of running and yelling. This is a boilerplate spy thriller – in fact, it was written as such with shards of Clancy’s source material unceremoniously dropped into the mix – and the set-up is indicative of its patchwork production. The first scene introduces us to a college-aged Jack Ryan watching the World Trade Center collapse, a grotty plot device that tastelessly attempts to frame the piece as a film about real world issues.

In reality, it’s just a dull, vacant post-Cold War spy yarn that has nothing to say about anything. It mistakes its own unimaginative logline for a plot – Jack Ryan unearths Russian scheme to destroy American economy through terror – and does zero to expand upon it. Yes, Jack’s fiancé, Cathy (Keira Knightley) plays a small part, as does his mentor, Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), but these are characters borne of the necessity to fill screen time – and give Jack someone to talk to.

We’ve been spoiled by genuinely exciting spy pics in recent years, and while “Casino Royale” and “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” weren’t particularly substantive, they were unabashedly entertaining, rife with snappy dialogue and impressive setpieces. None of that is present in “Shadow Recruit.” Amazingly enough, the slough that is the first hour ends up being preferable to the film in action hero mode. The third act is so hackneyed, the action so preposterous – and yet, so uninteresting – that many will look back fondly on the aggressive mediocrity that preceded it.

Costner fits his role like a glove, but he’s usually detached from the narrative, observing from afar. Knightley struggles with her American accent, while Branagh doesn’t fare much better with his Russian one, proving the point that fifteen years on from “Wild Wild West,” he still shouldn’t be playing the villain in a big-budget actioner. His direction isn’t any more impressive, suggesting that his last film, “Thor,” was more of a product of the Marvel Studios system than his talents as a director.

There’s one great scene in “Shadow Recruit” that hints at a much heftier version of the film – before the realities of endless rewrites and filmmaking-by-committee entered the equation. At the pic’s thirty-minute mark, Jack returns to his hotel room, where just hours earlier he’d dispatched of a henchman in a grueling, drawn-out fight. The room is immaculate once again, with no signs of struggle. Jack quietly marvels at the chocolates on his pillow and the fresh caulk lining the bathtub.

He’s as incredulous – and as disturbed – as we are at the might of the CIA and the folks whose job it is to mop up their transgressions. Who are these people? It’s a question more interesting than anything else in the film – one that it ponders for a moment before inexplicably letting it float away, never to return. Also likely to disappear? Your attention span. Let it go. You won’t miss anything.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: January 17, 2014
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Adam Cozad, David Koepp
Starring: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Peter Andersson, Kenneth Branagh
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and intense action, and brief strong language)