I have a fondness for the adventures of Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy's many novels about the CIA analyst-turned-operative. One of my fondest memories is of my grandfather, a WWII Navy veteran, giving me his copy of "The Hunt for Red October" and telling me what a great read it was (and he was right). And I continued reading Clancy's books (the ones he actually wrote; not the ghost-written ones) for quite some time after that. And certainly the first three films based on his works (OCTOBER, PATRIOT GAMES, and CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER) are easy to like; the fourth, THE SUM OF ALL FEARS, not so much. The fifth film featuring Ryan (with the fourth actor to play him) is JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT, and it's an attempt at reaching back into Ryan's backstory to the point in his career where he shifted from government desk job to working undercover for the CIA on Wall Street to uncover the financial hiding places of terrorist organizations, to running around Moscow with a gun and carrying out secret missions.
I actually like how this film begins, with Chris Pine (Captain Kirk in the latest Star Trek films) as a young college student abroad in London when the attacks on the World Trade Center happen (clearly any sort of continuity for the Clancy stories has been thrown out the window). Inspired to action, Ryan joins the Marines, and after several heroic missions, he's severely injured in a helicopter crash to the point where there is some doubt if he'll ever be able to walk again. In the physical therapy hospital, he meets pretty young nurse Cathy (Keira Knightley), and when he exits the facility able to walk, they begin to date.
Some of my favorite scenes in SHADOW RECRUIT involve Kevin Costner as Thomas Harper—whose job title, I suppose, is Shadow Recruiter—as he offers to pay for Ryan to finish university and go work on Wall Street to uncover shady money trails. There's something appropriately knowing and sly about Costner's performance. He's certainly not winking at us in a "I'm-a-spy" manner. Instead, he keeps his words and explanations to a minimum and simply expects Ryan to listen and do as he's told, which he pretty much does. In a perhaps more evolved world, Costner would have made a great older Jack Ryan.
Before long, Ryan believes he has uncovered mysterious accounts belonging to a Russian company run by Viktor Cherevin (played by the film's director, Kenneth Branagh), and he plots a trip to Moscow to look into it. Neither Branagh's directing nor his acting are really the problem, but it's at about the time his character is fully integrated into the story that SHADOW RECRUIT begins to unravel, going from a stripped-back, toned-down spy drama to a stampeding pack of bears that charge from Russia to New York, where yet another terrorist attack on the city's financial district appears to be at hand. There literally comes a point where both Ryan and Cherevin are together and are fully aware of what the other is doing, yet neither do anything but run away from each other.
Far better are moments such as one where Ryan is attacked in his luxury hotel room by a man who is supposed to be his body guard. Their tussle utterly trashes the place. But with one phone call and and a walk around the park, the man's body (Ryan's first kill for the CIA) is gone, and the room is returned to its former opulence. When SHADOW RECRUIT is more of a procedural, it's actually a somewhat passable endeavor, but for the film's final act, action rules the day, a fact made all the more annoying by the presence of Cathy in Moscow. She shows up to surprise her boyfriend, and stumbles in on his secret life, which she can't know about until they're married (or so they say).
Nearly every scene between them feels like the screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp are trying to force us into caring about this relationship, and it just never happens. Instead of painting Cathy as a strong woman, capable of being emotionally sturdy enough to be the potential wife of a CIA operative, she comes across as paranoid, jealous and whiny. Of course, so does Ryan at points, especially when (surprise, surprise), the bad guys kidnap Cathy, which leads to a high-speed chose through Moscow's streets. Boy, does he scream her name like a little girl who's just had her blanky taken away.
I'd really like to see Jack Ryan continue to be a force in the movie world. He isn't the American James Bond at all. He's a numbers man with a military background. He's not comfortable around politicians, and prefers the solitude of a desk and his home. The Jack Ryan in the beginning of SHADOW RECRUIT almost gets it right, but by the time the story makes its way back to New York, the film loses all sense of what makes it or the Ryan character unique. It's generic-ness turns into stupidity, and we're left with a predictable conclusion. Even the way the film's villains are dispatched with seems ill conceived and clunky.
Pine isn't the problem with SHADOW RECRUIT, but he's not exactly part of the solution either. In the right hands, he's good a sitting back and letting a character be painted on him by a strong director. But left to his own devices and instincts, he tends to default into smarmy mode, which is certainly not the case here. As Jack Ryan, he's actually pretty convincing as someone meant to be both brainy and tough. But once the film becomes pure action, any subtleties in his performance—and the film—are gone forever. It's a closer call than you might think. What Costner brings to the film almost redeems it; if he'd been on screen more, it might have. If you can endure the silliness in certain parts of the plot, as well as the mindless action, it's not inconceivable that you'd have a good time. But in all likelihood, JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT will leave you wanting more.