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JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT harkens back to those taut Cold War spy thrillers of days gone by. Not the ones with the elements of fantasy to their supervillains, but the ones that took ordinary people who had chosen the spy game out of patriotic duty, not dry martinis, and put them and their loved ones at risk. We may not have the Cold War and evil Soviets out to crush Capitalism with which to contend anymore, but screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp have taken Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan and fashioned an unevenly spun, but deliciously credible, tale of financial terrorism and evil Ruskies out for revenge against the West.
This is an origin story. We meet Jack when he’s a graduate student at the London School of Economics. He’s ¾ of the way to his PhD when 9/11 forces him to rethink his career path. A stint in Afghanistan with the Marines, and the resulting back injury causes him to re-rethink, and when Harper (Kevin Costner) approaches him during recuperation from the ci-mentioned injury and offers him a covert analyst job with the CIA, he jumps at it. He also jumps at Cathy, the medical student (Keira Knightly) overseeing his rehab. Ten years later, Jack is in the perfect position on Wall Street to notice that something wicked is brewing in Russia, and with the economy of the world at stake, Harper can’t afford to send anyone but Jack to Moscow in order to get to the truth and stop the Second Great Depression.
Director Kenneth Branagh, while not as pretty as Pine, dominates the film as Cherevin, the Russian businessman bent on destroying the global economy the better to remake it into one that Russia rules. His direction throughout is superb, even when he indulges in those sweeping long shots of his character in monumental settings, the better to introduce the element of ruthless megalomania. He needn’t have tried so hard. There is a scene in which he is having dinner at a swank restaurant with Jack and Cathy while a black ops operation is in play. Branagh goes from darkly, but charmingly, flirtatious with Cathy, to a look of solid, psychopathically emotional deadness while staring her straight in the eye. It’s a quiet but devastating moment that reminds us all why at one time 20 years ago or so Branagh was bruited as being the next Olivier. Pine, attractive and credible as the analyst almost but not quite out of his league, does a fine job with both remorse self-doubt, to carry the scenes of espionage acolyte with Costner, confused but smitten lover of the hesitant Knightly. and the burst of adrenalin necessary to carry the intricate action sequences, which are suitably breakneck.
The film’s weakness is a third act that is a little to contrived for its own, or the film’s, good, but which is necessary to get Jack into the final fray and save the world. The lull before this is filled with a sequence in which a slew of CIA agents suddenly forget all their detective skills leaving Jack to put the pieces together. Now, this is, of course, what Jack does: notice patterns, notice when they are not quite right, notice where the not quite right will lead. It’s the script that accomplishes the reminding us of same with so little grace. As for why Knightly, a fine actress with the world at her feet, would choose a film in which she essentially plays the feisty damsel in distress is a question for another day. One need only be grateful that the part is played by someone who brings intelligence to the part instead of a shallow sort of spunk.
JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT has its faults, but is so bursting with hi-tech thrills, and good, old-fashioned suspense that it’s not onerous to overlook them.