Shadow Shines Brightly
By Carl Kozlowski
Just as the British have plowed through an array of dashing actors ranging from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig to portray their super agent James Bond, Hollywood keeps changing actors when it comes time to make a Jack Ryan movie. After Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck took their turns in hit movies featuring Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst, Chris Pine (best known as Captain Kirk in the new Star Trek movies) steps up the plate this Friday in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and knocks it out of the park with the most wildly entertaining series entry yet.
One unusual approach the series has been taking is in each successive film Ryan is at a thoroughly different state in his career. He was in his mid- to late-30s when played by Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October, in his 50s when portrayed by Ford in Patriot Games and A Clear and Present Danger, and slid back to his early 30s when Affleck filled his shoes in The Sum of All Fears.
Here, Pine plays him at the very start of his career, showing Ryan in 2002 as a Marine shot down on a helicopter mission in Afghanistan. He is in the midst of intense physical therapy when a naval officer who secretly works for the Navy named William Harper (Costner) secretly recruits him to investigate the financial dealings of terrorist groups to predict and prevent attacks on the financial markets.
10 years later Ryan is secretly ensconced as a seemingly normal financial analyst on Wall Street and living with his former therapist Cathy (Keira Knightley). Ryan notices that trillions of dollars are being shifted on world markets by a front group he traces to a Russian oligarch named Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), and Harper sends him to inquire about the deals.
But when Ryan is suddenly shot at and forced to fight to the death against the man who has been assigned to him as a bodyguard by his Russian hosts, he finds that he is forced to move well beyond his training as a desk analyst and fight his way out of one escapade after another while trying to figure out Cherevin’s ultimate plan in time to foil a terrorist attack and collapse of the American dollar.
Things get even more complicated when Cathy suspects he’s having an overseas affair and decides to surprise him in Moscow. Ryan loves his country, but he loves Cathy even more, and when she is endangered he sets off on an even more frantic chase to save her life as well.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a total thrill ride that breathlessly moves like a rocket, creating a spy movie that rivals modern genre masterpieces like Skyfall. The movie could easily coast on having great action and a terrific villain, but with Branagh also serving as director, the movie has more depth than one might expect.
Branagh made his name as a classically trained actor and director of Shakespearean film adaptations including Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. That high level of artistry has enabled him to bring an impressively personal aspect to Ryan’s adventures, which is perfectly complemented by Pine’s ability to portray Ryan as a man who thought he had confidence but is suddenly realizing he’s in way over his head.
The movie’s most impressive moments show Ryan is shown shaken and almost mournful after he has to commit his first kill, even though he was defending himself against a rogue bodyguard. That fight scene has a great ramshackle feel to it, making the audience believe that Ryan is really thinking up on the spot what to do to save himself rather than seeming like a proficient robot a la Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible films.
As entertaining as the Mission movies are, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit winds up being more impressive by being more grounded in its characters and realistic in its stunts. When the audience can believe that its hero may really not know what he’s doing but finds a way to step ahead of villainy or death nonetheless, then the plot seems more surprising and the stakes seem higher.
The movie is also unabashedly patriotic, with Ryan rising to the challenge of defending his nation, and taking chances even at the expense of his own health and safety. The movie has great fun with making Russians the villains once again after two decades of being overlooked as bad guys amid the post-Cold War thaw in US-Russian relations. Anyone who follows geopolitics knows that current Russian leader Vladimir Putin has questionable motives, and this movie cleverly plays into those suspicions.