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Tom Clancy re-heats the Cold War from the grave in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a streamlined reboot of a 1990s-rooted Paramount franchise in which the United States is saved from another 9/11-sized catastrophe altogether too easily. As the fourth actor to portray the title character in a five-film series thus far, Chris Pine adequately follows in the footsteps of Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck in what also amounts to an origins story about the character’s trial by fire in the CIA. Commercial prospects look solid, if not spectacular, for this efficient, if ultimately rote, political thriller.
While it benefits from an attractive cast, the perennial allure of the spy game and the exoticism of the contemporary Moscow setting, the biggest problem afflicting this modest diversion is that it’s the sort of film in which computers get to the bottom of every problem that comes up in about five seconds. It seems like half the running time consists of characters in cars, vans or planes, in their offices or hotels or just on their cell phones managing to download or send whatever secret information is in play with a click or two, and nevermind such cumbersome annoyances as passwords or user IDs. And no one ever needs to call a tech supervisor.
What actually is in play here is the value of the American dollar, which is what Russian oligarch Viktor Cheverin (Kenneth Branagh, directing himself onscreen for the first time since Hamlet) aims to collapse along with Lower Manhattan in a coordinated terrorist attack. With the Kremlin in cahoots with him as a silent partner, the plan is to bring the Yankees to their knees in a way the communists were never able to do.
Equally nationalistic is Jack Ryan, first seen here watching the attack on the Twin Towers while a student at the London School of Economics. Inspired to help his country, he’s soon in uniform serving in Afghanistan, where he has the misfortune of being shot out of the sky in his chopper, but the good fortune to be nursed back to health by a beguiling doctor, Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley, complete with an American accent), with whom he takes up as soon as his treatment is finished.
There is a certain generation-spanning pleasure in watching veteran CIA handler William Harper (Kevin Costner, in low-key authoritative form) set Jack up as a financial intelligence analyst within a big Wall Street firm, where he spends a decade before being given five seconds to pack for his mission to Moscow. Despite living together, Jack can’t tell Cathy whom he works for, and when she discovers a ticket stub for an afternoon showing at the Film Forum of the old thriller Sorry, Wrong Number in his pants pocket, she’s convinced he’s having an affair. Who knew that downtown venue for revivals and arty fare was a popular spy information exchange spot?
Once Cheverin is identified as the key to the gross international monetary manipulations, Jack is charged with accessing the key files the Russian has hidden from view. In a scene that doesn’t make much sense, Jack is put to an immediate physical test by his Moscow airport greeter, a mountainous Ugandan bodyguard who tries to take him out as soon as they reach the hotel. Unexpectedly, Cathy then turns up in Moscow and finally must be told what her husband does for a living, leading to the film’s high point, a dinner scene at a fancy Moscow boite during which the couple enacts an elaborate charade that allows Jack the chance to steal secret info from Cheverin, whose vices — vodka, vanity, women — are neatly exploited.
Such key plot elements as financial-based terrorism, lingering Russian animosity towards the U.S., sleeper agents and the electronic world providing the main battleground are aptly handled and the action is plentiful, if not terribly unusual. The relationship between Jack and the woman he dearly wants to be his wife is appealing, and Branagh’s villain is shot through with deep historic bloodlines (his office is dominated by a huge painting of Napoleon being turned away by Russians).
But there’s at least one car chase too many and the climactic one, in New York as the seconds tick toward another downtown disaster, feels jerry-rigged specifically to include every cliché in the generic urban suspense playbook. Instead of embracing dramatic complexities and setbacks, all the better to make the most of them creatively, screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp are intent upon steamrolling right over them, to uninvolving effect.
Pine is fine as the uniformed-turned-covert patriot; he lacks the physical stature of his predecessors and it’s not entirely believable that he could prevail over the African bodyguard who turns on him. Beyond Costner, Branagh and Knightley, all good to have around, the cast doesn’t possess the sort of depth or number of prominent players that the earlier Jack Ryan features did. Technically, the film is sharp, with Moscow panoramas supplemented by scenes of Liverpool doubling as the Russian capital.
Opens: January 17 (Paramount)
Production: Skydance Productions, Lorenzo di Bonaventura/Mace Neufeld Productions
Cast: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightley, Colm Feore, Peter Andersson, Nonso Anozie, Gemma Chan
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriters: Adam Cozad, David Koepp, based on characters created by Tom Clancy
Producers: Mace Neufeld, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, David Barron, Mark Vahradian
Executive producers: David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Paul Schwake, Tommy Harper
Director of photography: Haris Zambarloukos
Production designer: Andrew Laws
Costume designer: Jill Taylor
Editor: Martin Walsh
Music: Patrick Doyle
PG-13 rating, 105 minutes
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