By Drew Taylor | The Playlist January 16, 2014 at 1:11PM
Today, most people associate the character of Jack Ryan—originally created by author Tom Clancy, in a number of blockbuster novels—as a kind of hard-hitting action hero. This is thanks in large part to the series of films that began with 1990's masterful thriller "The Hunt for Red October" and continued with two Harrison Ford-as-Ryan entries, as well as a forgettable stand-alone starring Ben Affleck as the brainy CIA analyst. But in the novels and best parts of the earlier movies, Ryan is described and dramatized as something of a nerd, so encased in his own thoughts that he finds it difficult to leap into action. This week's aggressively mediocre "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," refashions the character (this time played by Chris Pine) into a man of immediate action, and in doing so drains him of anything that made him a relatable human being.
When "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" kicks off (and, just to get this out of the way, the ridiculous subtitle is never explained), Ryan is a student at a financial college in London. He sees his classmates gathered around a monitor and, approaching it, we realize that—huzzah—it's September 11th they're all watching unfold. That's right, folks, a national tragedy that traumatized the entire world has now become a minor plot point in an also-ran Hollywood thriller. Never forget.
From there the story jumps forward 18 months and Ryan has joined the military, en route to fight in Afghanistan. He was so charged up with patriotic piss and vinegar that he joins the military right after September 11th. What a guy. (Imagine what will happen when he sees "Lone Survivor.") Of course, his helicopter crashes, which anyone who even partially remembers "The Hunt for Red October" (or has watched any movie ever) will see coming from a million miles away. What's kind of interesting is that the Ryan-surviving-a-crash detail was concocted on the fly by that film's director, the deeply brilliant John McTiernan, and was never part of the Clancy/Ryan canon. It was meant as a small moment to deepen the Ryan character. But here, the filmmakers spend an ungodly amount of time on Ryan's recovery, which is where he meets his fiancé, the comely doctor Cathy (Keira Knightley) and his gruff handler William Harper (Kevin Costner), who basically prods him into joining the CIA.
Of course, Ryan finishes his rehabilitation and joins the CIA, this time as a covert financial analyst, watching the global stock market ebb and flow while working in a large investment firm. This makes him an instantly unlikable protagonist—he's a wolf of Wall Street who also works for a covert organization that, as we see in the course of the movie, routinely violates civil liberties and international law. In the original film, as portrayed by the squarely handsome Alec Baldwin, he wrote books for the C.I.A. on nautical history; he was a dweeb you could believe in.
Chris Pine is attractive and he doesn't do anything like snort cocaine out a hooker's butthole, so we're forced to root for him, despite how morally questionable (and cinematically dull) his new professions are. While on Wall Street, Ryan stumbles upon some iffy transactions associated with a Russian company his firm does business with, which makes him less a crack analyst than incredibly lucky, considering the amount of pure happenstance involved. Ryan is then flown to Moscow to try and figure out what is going on, for both his firm and the CIA. That's when things get complicated.
For one, he butts heads with Kenneth Branagh's character, a mogul named Viktor Cherevin who is such an obvious bad guy that he might as well be stroking a white Persian cat or have his office located in an underwater volcano. For another, his erstwhile girlfriend, believing young Mr. Ryan is having an affair, shows up in Moscow, ready to make his "business trip" a little more romantic, but instead is swept into the espionage. Yes, for some reason, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" forcibly shoehorns in the "True Lies"/"Mission: Impossible III" conceit of how hard it is to maintain a relationship when you're an international man of mystery. Dang.
Most of the movie plays out in Russia, with Ryan and his team (including Costner, who inexplicably shows up in Moscow) trying to decode some kind of algorithm associated with the madman's plot. It seems that nefarious Russian forces wish to bankrupt the American economy, partially by setting off a large scale terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The problem with this plot is that there's nothing tactile about it; it's missing the tangible grit of the earlier film's missing submarine or assassination attempt on the Royal Family or a covert drug war. Ryan isn't tracking down bad guys as much as he's processing financial records and chasing ones-and-zeros. It's pretty uninteresting.
You could give the filmmakers credit for trying to update the character for modern times and steeping him in the crisis of today's world, but after the movie spends an inordinate amount of time setting up the financial backdrop, it devolves into another dumb stop-the-bomb-before-it-goes-off chase sequence (much of it shot way after principle photography on the movie had ended).
Branagh, who also serves as the film's director after successfully navigating the mythological chores of Marvel's "Thor," sometimes tries to appropriate the style of McTiernan, with nimble camera movements and twinkly lens flares. But unlike McTiernan, there's no reason for the stylization; the camerawork feels like an empty distraction, an attempt to avert your attention away from the inherent lousiness of the script (which was worked on by a small army of screenwriters but finally attributed to David Koepp and Adam Cozad), and the listlessness of the actors, all of whom could have been doing something much better with their time. Aside from a neat scene where Ryan fakes drunkenness to hack into Branagh's computer, all of the action sequences are banal and forgettable, aping both the "Bourne" movies and more recent James Bond entries.
But it's the Jack Ryan character that ultimately feels like movie's biggest casualty. In "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," he successfully drowns a 300-pound Ugandan man sent to kill him, even though he never even finished his basic training, and chases down a runaway truck on a speedy motorcycle, deftly avoiding traffic accidents and zipping up the side of police barricades. The earlier filmmakers (particularly McTiernan) strove for a kind of earthiness in the espionage. Back in "The Hunt for Red October," when Doctor Ryan would tell people that he was "just an analyst," you believed him. He was, after all, a character introduced to the audience surrounded by academic miscellanea and wearing a cabled turtleneck sweater. Here, coming from the smug mouth of Chris Pine, it sounds like a put-on… and a fairly unbelievable one at that. [C-]