Jack Ryan, hero of Tom Clancy’s series of novels, is a character born out of the Cold War era. An analyst with the CIA who, more often than not, found himself in the middle of one Soviet threat (usually nuclear) or another.
It goes without saying that the geopolitical arena has changed quite a bit since Jack Ryan made his first appearance in The Hunt for Red October way back in 1984. Cold War politics are no longer the hot button topic they used to be. But a smart, good looking CIA analyst? Well those never go out of style. At least Paramount hopes so…
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is an attempt to reboot the once popular character in the modern era. The first of the Jack Ryan movies not to be based on a Tom Clancy novel wastes no time with its newfound freedom. It establishes an updated backstory for the character, which essentially amounts to dropping the character’s old backstory down a checklist of post-9/11 events and locales.
But eventually this all ends with Jack back in his old familiar role as an analyst with the CIA. In this case, he’s looking for terrorist bank accounts on Wall Street rather than breaking down the latest news out of the Kremlin, but all you have to do is give it a few minutes and Shadow Recruit has him right back in old familiar Russia. Some habits are hard to shake I guess.
Chris Pine had big shoes to fill stepping into a role made famous by the likes of Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford and frankly he performs admirably. Jack Ryan doesn’t have the swagger of a Captain Kirk and while every now and then he slips into that role, for the most part he’s played as the down-to-Earth analyst he should be.
Unfortunately, Shadow Recruit lacks the intelligence of many of the other Jack Ryan adventures. Its central plot is about as cookie cutter as they come, pieced together by a handful of expository scenes that feel more like they’re lecturing the audience than they are two characters having a real conversation.
Jack is never questioned. Never has to convince anyone of anything. Never really has to work too hard to figure out anything. If The Hunt for Red October was a delicate chess game, then Shadow Recruit barely constitutes a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos. The actual intelligence work is pushed aside for a few easily digestible scenes meant to point the way to whatever Jack has to do next.
In fact, Shadow Recruit is so worried that not everybody will understand, it spoon feeds its audience just about everything. Kevin Costner’s CIA boss character really only has two purposes in the film: to explain out loud exactly what’s about to happen next or to marvel at Jack Ryan’s near superhero like abilities. Seriously, if I had to hear him say just one more time how smart Jack Ryan is, my eyes would have become permanently stuck in a rolling position.
At the same time, the film seems obsessed with its own cleverness. Every bit of tradecraft has to be put prominently on display or mentioned in dialogue, often in ways that would run counter to that very tradecraft. Shadow Recruit feels like an insecure teenager, constantly needing reassurance that this spy stuff is indeed pretty darn cool.
This is ironically undercut by the fact that for some reason there’s a couple’s squabble unceremoniously dumped into the middle of the proceedings. It’s hard to keep a clever, gritty spy movie going when you’ve got to constantly strain credibility to keep a romantic comedy brewing just under every scene.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a silly, dumb action movie. I’m just not sure why you use a character like Jack Ryan to do it. Perhaps that’s my own blatant nostalgia talking, but I still can’t shake the feeling that at some point along the way the material here failed him. And that’s a pity, because somewhere out there was a Jack Ryan worth watching.
Final Score: 1.5/5