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Dustin Putman

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Jack Ryan:
Shadow Recruit
2 Stars
Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Cast: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Colm Feore, Alec Utgoff, Peter Andersson, Lenn Kudrjawizki, Nonso Anozie, Seth Ayott, Gemma Chan, David Paymer.
2014 – 106 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence and brief strong language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 16, 2014.
A reboot-prequel combo of late author Tom Clancy's covert CIA analyst protagonist, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" casts Chris Pine (2013's "Star Trek Into Darkness") in the role previously occupied by Alec Baldwin (1990's "The Hunt for Red October"), Harrison Ford (1992's "Patriot Games" and 1994's "Clear and Present Danger") and Ben Affleck (2002's "The Sum of All Fears"). In modernizing the project and setting the narrative in a post-9/11 environment—for the record, this project uses Clancy's characters but isn't specifically adapted from any of his novels—director Kenneth Branagh (2011's "Thor") and screenwriters David Koepp (2012's "Premium Rush") and first-timer Adam Cozad are not quite courageous enough to venture beyond the formulaic as it pertains to sociopolitical-minded action-thrillers. All the same, what they have wrought is an example of exceedingly efficient filmmaking and storytelling, getting the job done in a brisk 106 minutes even as the picture isn't really providing its prospective audience with anything particularly new.

Eighteen months after the life-altering events of September 11, 2001, Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is inspired to put his doctorate studies on hold and serve his country in the Marines. While recuperating at Walter Reed from a near-fatal helicopter ambush in Afghanistan, he meets two people destined to change his life: Cathy (Keira Knightley), a third-year med student with whom he ultimately falls in love, and Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), a CIA agent and recruit who sees in Jack the spark he's been looking for. Ten year later, Jack is a junior analyst working undercover as a compliance officer on Wall Street while keeping live-in girlfriend Cathy in the dark about his true profession. When he stumbles upon scads of scattered bank accounts hidden in Russia, he is promoted to operational field agent and heads to Moscow to investigate what could be a catastrophic terrorist plot to cripple the stateside economy. Almost immediately, he becomes a hunted man, evading assassination while endeavoring upon a game of wits with Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), a ruthless businessman at the center of the conspiracy.

"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" hasn't quite the emotional resonance of "Patriot Games" or the labyrinthine intrigue of "Clear and Present Danger," but it is compelling in its own straightforward, nitty-gritty way. There is a lot of material to cover in the beginning stretch; prior to the opening title card, the film introduces Jack as a college student in London on 9/11 and follows him through his military experiences months later, a trip to a rehabilitation center, and his first meetings with future-wife Cathy and Thomas Harper. Director Kenneth Branagh succeeds in economically zipping through Jack's background without making it feel rushed, then wastes no time in getting to the central case at hand, set ten years later. The film's steadily zippy pacing is one of its biggest attributes, helping to absorb even when the details feel awfully familiar and contrivances rear their ugly heads throughout. Also helping the cause: several rock-solid set-pieces that expertly play on one's nerves, from a knock-down fight to the death in a hotel room to a study in quietly simmering intensity when Jack and Cathy meet Viktor for a dinner of cunning and deception.

In my review of the dismal 2006 Lindsay Lohan romantic comedy "Just My Luck," this is what was written about Chris Pine, who starred as her love interest: "He is one of those bland dime-a-dozen twentysomething actors who blends together with a lot of other young hunks in his age group." What a difference, then, better roles can do for a performer. Pine is no longer virtually interchangeable amongst his peers, but an actor of commanding charisma and believable—but never arrogant—swagger. His part here as the title figure isn't going to be the deepest he ever plays, but he is very good at doing what is asked of him while bringing his own spin to it.

The relationship Jack shares with Cathy is the heart of the movie, and possibly the best thing about it. Pine and Keira Knightley (2012's "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World") have chemistry to spare, and credit the script for treating Cathy as a smart, understanding, non-clingy significant other who reacts very differently than one expects when she discovers her boyfriend has been hiding his profession from her. She also gets much more to do than just wait patiently along the sidelines, participating in crucial ways as Jack attempts to get closer to his nefarious target. Kevin Costner (2013's "Man of Steel") suffices as Jack's mentor, William Harper, but doesn't get very much to chew on, but Kenneth Branagh (2011's "My Week with Marilyn"), casting himself as the villain of the piece, relishes the chance to bring more to Viktor Cherevin that is normally seen with so-called "bad guys." Also memorable: as deadly Michigan-based sleeper agent Aleksandr Borovsky, Alec Utgoff (2010's "The Tourist") is viciously no-nonsense, standing out with little screen time and almost no dialogue.

"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" is grown-up popcorn entertainment, sophisticated if slight, its thematic aims for profundity feeling a handful of years past timeliness in its dealings with a financial crisis that could up-end the U.S. economy. The third act, bringing Jack back to Manhattan just in time to try and thwart a terrorist attack, keeps the momentum going, but strikes as a semi-anticlimactic payoff to what has gone before. This isn't an unequivocal success by any means, but Branagh's directorial prowess and the cast's focused, in-the-moment turns are worth noting. As the possible beginning to a refurbished brand—that of Jack Ryan's CIA adventures—"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" is an amicable kickoff with room for improvement.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman