Film Review – “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (Director: Kenneth Branagh)

Before James Bond received the retcon treatment with “Casino Royale”, Paramount Studios tried to revamp their Jack Ryan franchise with “The Sum Of All Fears” in 2002 starring Ben Affleck as Ryan and Morgan Freeman as his mentor, William Cabot.  Despite financial success, the film met with a mixed critical reaction.

Fast forward eleven years, the Bond franchise has had a revival in its fortunes culminating in 2012’s “Skyfall” and Paramount’s other tentpole spy franchise, “Mission: Impossible” has received a facelift thanks to J J Abrams, and now Jack Ryan receives a similar facelift to “Casino Royale” by returning the character to his origins.

The film starts with Ryan as a student in London as he witnesses the attacks on the World Trade Centre.  This incident serves as the catalyst to his joining the Marines and, subsequently, the CIA as a covert financial analyst.

Ten years on and Ryan is engaged to Doctor Cathy Muller and has built a successful cover as a Compliance Officer in a Wall Street company.  Upon spotting financial irregularities with a Russian company who is partners with his firm, Ryan is assigned to investigate Viktor Cheverin – an assignment which changes Ryan’s status from covert into a fully operational agent.

There are points in any big film franchise where it needs a hiatus to revitalise and refresh it.  This worked for Bond and the “Star Trek” franchises and, to a certain extent, it works for the Jack Ryan franchise.

Gone is the dyed-in-the-wool military tutor and CIA analyst as portrayed by Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, or the already established analyst that was the Affleck incarnation.  With Chris Pine as the less seasoned incarnation of Ryan the audience is treated to a raw version of the character who manages to convince that he has been pushed into the field, whilst having the room to fit in Pine’s talent for creating likeable characters and adding vulnerability to the role.

An example of this vulnerability is a scene early in Ryan’s assignment in Moscow which is reminiscent of the opening scene of “Casino Royale”.  Whilst Bond states that it gets easier to kill people, Ryan has the shakes as he discusses the incident with his mentor.

Which nicely leads me to Kevin Costner in his portrayal as Thomas Harper, Ryan’s recruiting officer to the CIA and his mentor in the field.  Costner had a tough act to follow as he takes on the “mentor” role previously filled by James Earl Jones in the first three films and the aforementioned Morgan Freeman.  I enjoyed the partnership between Pine and Costner, which is partly down the humour between the two and partly down to the fact that Costner can take on the mentor parts effectively, I mean he was fantastic as Jonathan Kent in “Man Of Steel”.

Rather than his more desk bound predecessors, Harper is someone who works in the field and manages to get his hands dirty, as in the scene where he has to provide cover for Jack as he escapes Cheverin’s offices, whilst having the room to empathise with Jack following his first kill.

Kenneth Branagh gives a solid performance in the role of Cheverin.  On the one hand, he has the genial public face of an industrialist who also has a weakness for alcohol and women, whilst lurking not so far underneath are the darker aspects to the character’s nature as he demonstrates by killing a man in a fit of pique and torturing Cathy.  Branagh manages to portray villainy in the manner of villains being heroes unto themselves, whilst being believable in his motives and resisting the scenery chewing.

Unfortunately, Keira Knightley doesn’t get the best material in the role of Cathy.  The early scenes between Cathy and Jack are warm and flirty, but this gives way to a portrayal that isn’t allowed that same warmth throughout.  This is partially due to the film’s narrative which shows Cathy as a woman who has concerns about her relationship with Jack as she believes he is cheating on her, whilst other scenes she is shown as the damsel in distress.  If this film does spark a franchise, I hope that they invest her character with more warmth as in the Anne Archer portrayal of the character, whilst allowing room for more ballsiness.  By this, I refer to the fact that she accompanies Jack on the main part of his assignment to investigate Cheverin due to his love of for wine and women, surely this implies that she has a degree of guts within her.

Unlike the previous films which were based on Tom Clancy’s novels, this film is an original storyline by Adam Cozad and David Koepp.  Although it adds little beyond what a film in the action genre provides, it is a solid film which manages to re-imagine the character in a contemporary setting whilst making the film relevant to current issues, in this case, the global economic situation.

The direction by Branagh is pacey and includes the standard action flick beats of sneaking around offices, vehicle chases and fight scenes.  That said, he manages to add some arty touches to the proceedings, most particularly in Cheverin’s wrap up scene towards the end of the film.

“Shadow Recruit” doesn’t really offer anything that breaks the spy action mould which we’ve come to expect fro a “Bond” film, a “Bourne” film or one of the”Mission: Impossible” franchise.  However, it is a solid reboot of a potential franchise and it would be good to see Chris Pine, Keira Knightley and Kevin Costner in more Jack Ryan films, especially if the producers warm the relationship between Pine and Knightley and give the character of Cathy more development opportunities.

Rating:3.5/5

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