“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is a prequel, of sorts, to the movies adapted from the popular Tom Clancy novels. The first of the Ryan movies not based on a Clancy book, this one stars Chris Pine as a boyish Ryan who evolves (or devolves, depending upon your outlook) into a CIA operative. He is recruited by veteran Navy officer and current spook Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) while Ryan is recovering from a helicopter accident during the Afghan war. Years later, he is pressed into field service in order to save the American Way of Life.
Ignoring the problems involved with resetting the Ryan character’s timeline from the Clancy books and its cinematic forerunners, the viewer has to deal with Pine’s looking more like a frat boy who would get carded at a bar than a tough ex-Marine officer who has to kill for his country. His appearance serves him well in the earlier going, when Ryan appears to be more of an Econ grad student with serious computer skills than a James wannabe. Later, though, when he has to take on the adult Ryan role that, for instance, Harrison Ford filled, it’s hard to believe that Pine has the savvy and grit to do the requisite daring.
As the younger version of his wife, Dr. Katherine Ryan, Keira Knightley lacks the credibility that Anne Archer lent to the character, though she is certainly compelling as eye candy. Her beauty helps when Dr. Kate is asked to beguile a suspicious Russian oligarch, one Viktor Cherevin, who is attempting to bring down the American economy through a complex bond-dumping scheme that Jack has sniffed out. Cherevin is played by Kenneth Branagh, the former Shakespeare actor and director who has lately fallen into roles that are, let’s say, less challenging. As a director, Sir Kenneth is clearly in love with his character, who gets almost as much screen time as his more callow (albeit prettier) American counterpart.
Cherevin is a dying alcoholic with a taste for fine wine and finer women, both of which aid in his undoing. His financial plot is tied in with a terrorist attack that serves mainly to add some visual thrills to the proceedings — stabbings, shootings, and, of course, a bomb that threatens to destroy half of Wall Street. The sequence of this plot’s unraveling and an earlier one set in Moscow provide the excuse for the by-now-obligatory car chases through the crowded streets of a giant cosmopolis. (I have to wonder how many real-life car crashes and deaths have been caused by the impossible street fantasies we have been subjected to for decades, now. But I suppose that’s like opining that computer games might lead to school shootings.)
Anyway, the plot, vehicular mayhem and all, is so wonderfully formulaic that viewers can put their minds on cruise control and enjoy this “PG” rated flick for what it aspires to be: an acceptable if not especially original reworking of the successful Bond/Bourne business. It won’t be the kind of classic that “The Hunt for Red October” has become, and it’s not as good as the later Ryan movies such as “Patriot Games.” Still, it’s an OK piece of filmic escapism, proving a couple of brief hours out of the bleak midwinter blues.