If I could just get you to affect Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin voice from “Iron Man 3” for a moment and repeat following: “The name of an iconic character, the bathroom fight origins of ‘Casino Royale’ James Bond, the motorcycle riding ability of Jason Bourne and a ‘Mission: Impossible’ support team. Are you ready for the new Jack Ryan?” The only answer is in the words of the Mandarin’s alter ego Trevor “BLAH, BLAH, BLAH.” A crowd of university students are huddled around a television watching the unfolding events of September 11th 2001. In that crowd is grad student Jack Ryan (Chris Pine), who inspired by that world changing moment, immediately enlists as a marine. Unfortunately on deployment in Afghanistan he’s a passenger on a helicopter attacked by an enemy rocket.
Barely surviving the crash, enduring a physical recuperation with the assistance of Dr. Cathy (Keira Knightley), he’s poached by CIA recruiter William Harper (Kevin Costner) to finish his degree and become a covert analyst on Wall Street. Years into his tenure Ryan must travel to Russia and infiltrate Viktor Cherevin’s (Kenneth Branagh) team to uncover the validity of the impending attack. Branagh (Thor, Hamlet, Frankenstein), who also directs, begins “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” with a promising atmospheric, post 9/11, reinvention of Tom Clancy’s literary clydesdale that increasingly devolves into a frustrating mess.
How do you know that it’s a globetrotting international thriller? The veritable barrage of establishing shots travelling all across the globe with dramatic inter-titles, that’s how. The nauseating repetition will cause frustrating exhales. The fast cutting frenetic chase sequences feel like they were left on Paul Greengrass’ cutting room floor.
Slavishly adhering to the ludicrous pace cleanses Branagh’s directorial identity from the picture. Two moments; Ryan’s stalking through a clusters of panicked students and the ominous architecture of Harvard University in London to discover the attack on the twin towers, and the reveal of Cherevin feel different because Branagh’s allowed to draw you in. You feel like you’re occupying the aura of the characters, breathing their air. Writers Adam Cozad and David Koepp (a notorious script fixer) use pace to disguise the giant leaps of character progression. In hours Ryan, an analyst reeling from the shock of his first kill, is a totally proficient spy using Bruce Wayne level fake drunken-ness to deceive Cherevin (Branagh).
Cathy (Knightly) discovers Ryan’s secret CIA employment concealed for over ten years and within eight minutes (as pointed out by an actual a quote by Costner’s Harper) she’s not only O.K with it, but she’s being enlisted for a covert operation.
Finally, as the film rolled into its climax Pine shows off his ‘one of a kind’ analyst skills by pacing up and down a flight deck barking at headset wearing drones to search social media for terrorists. Literally as he’s speaking his investigative recommendations you’re seeing them take place; thereby making the one unique aspect of the character obsolete. Knightley’s Cathy is a doctor in title and scrubs only. Her ‘inspirational’ quality was completely lost on me. Pine and Knightley do not have one iota of chemistry and their relationship is flimsier than Pine’s believability as an analyst.
Pine is completely miscast as Ryan. He’s far too cocky and confident to play an authentic studious guy, willing to sacrifice anything for his country. He constantly seems lost in thought, not a calculating focus, but like someone who’s overthinking every aspect of the portrayal; which looks a lot like someone trying not to lose control of their bowel. Costner’s resurgence as a seasoned mentor figure is one of the saving graces of the film. His weathered leading man looks, toggling between the charm and intensity of a seasoned espionage practitioner works in spades.
Branagh too tries to bring something grandiose, yet quirky to Viktor Cherevin. There’s such volatility to his private character that he’s even willing to beat up his male nurse for not administering the medicine correctly. He thinks he’s untouchable and it manifests larger than life vanity. He’s a better villain character than this film deserved. “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is giving Branagh a chance to get in Dr. Frankenstein’s shoe once again; Cozad and Koepp ignore the library of source material and assist in creating a monster from elements of other successful spy characters.