Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
As though sitting in the center seat of the Starship Enterprise as Captain Kirk in the re-booted "Star Trek" franchise were not enough to keep him busy, Chris Pine undertakes a second franchise and a second iconic role: That of Jack Ryan, the character from a string of Tom Clancy novels.
With "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," writers Adam Cozad and David Koepp follow suit with the "Star Trek" franchise -- and the "Batman," "James Bond," and "Spider-Man" franchises, for that matter -- by hitting the re-set button. No longer is Jack Ryan a grown-up in the Alec Baldwin or Harrison Ford mode (or even the Ben Affleck mode): When we meet him at the start of the film, in a too-brisk prelude, he's a student in England as of Sep. 11, 2001. A year and a half later, he's a lieutenant in the Marine Corps, choppering around Afghanistan and filing intelligence analysis reports with superiors who, he frets, are all too indifferent to his insights.
One surface-to-air missile and bout of intense physical therapy at the hands of a resident named Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley) later, Ryan is approached by a spook named Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner). From there, we skip ahead a decade: Ryan (still looking like he's barely out of his teen years) works by day as a compliance officer at a major Wall Street firm. By night, and during the occasional stolen afternoon at the movies, he's a CIA analyst looking for evidence of terrorist activity.
And boy, does he find it: It seems the Russians are up to something suitably Evil Empire-ish, this time involving neither advanced submarines nor nuclear weapons nor any other sci-fi hardware MacGuffin, but rather a plot to devalue the dollar and plunge the United States (and, presumably, the rest of the world with it) into what Ryan solemnly dubs "The Second Great Depression." Why such a Pyrrhic strategy? "They'll recover," Ryan posits; "We won't."
Tied in with this effort to manipulate the global stock market is a plan to carry out a terrorist attack. (Aha! We know something had to detonate in this movie.) The two plots go hand in hand because... for some reason... the scheme involving financial terrorism won't work without the traditional exploding-device stripe of terrorism also in the mix. Why this is, we don't know. We're meant to take it on faith: Jack Ryan is, after all, a mensch and a Ph.D.
His fiancée -- the afore-mentioned Dr. Muller -- is also meant to take it on faith the Jack, for all is evasions and mysterious activities, is worth sticking around for and tying the knot with. (It turns out that Jack can't tell Cathy the real nature of his work unless he marries her first.) When Catherine inserts herself into Jack's so-dangerous-it's-silly mission to Moscow, she becomes an insurmountable operational liability Oh wait, that would only be true in something resembling the real world. In the movies things are different, and so, of course, Cathy instantly becomes an indispensable part of Jack's team.
Good thing, too, because the brutal, brilliant villain at the heart of all the cloak and dagger is a certain Viktor Cherevin (played with a bad dye job and an equally dodgy Russian accent by the film's director, Kenneth Branagh). Cherevin would have our hero stuffed, trussed, and roasted without breaking a sweat except that he's a womanizer and Cathy, being the wife of a super-hero (not to mention being Keira Knightley), is a knockout. Her job is to distract Cherevin for a few minutes while Jack slips off to use a super-spy gadget capable of turning a skyscraper's electrical system into a means of hacking a computer. Of course, all Cherevin has to do is catch on to the plot (and get his hands on... wait for it... a light bulb) to respond by threatening Ryan with the prospect of a horrible death for his fiancée.
The only thing that stops this hot, horrible mess from sinking into a puddle of sludge is Branagh's glowering performance and his directing style, which couples nicely with Martin Walsh's dynamic editing style. In both cases, sheer speed and energy gloss over any number of absurdities, and the movie even manages to create an atmosphere of tension when it needs to. The unintentional laughs barrel up at almost as frenetic a clip as the action sequences, from a ridiculous hand-to-hand throw-down between Ryan and an armed security goon, to an eye-roll-worthy dinner scene, to the steadily mounting number of special competencies revealed to be in Ryan's skill set. (Is it CIA financial operatives, or is it Marines in general, who are taught, as a matter of course, how to handle a motorcycle like a professional stunt driver?)
As a colleague remarked, "It's not boring!" True enough. The film also doesn't make a lick of sense. Even as escapism, it's deficient: So what if the hero saves us from the financial depredations of the Russkies? It's Wall Street that just about sank us in 2008. It's Wall Street about which we should still be worried. Instead of cold war nostalgia and shadow recruits, maybe what we need is some regulatory reform with teeth. "Jack Ryan: SEC Kick-Ass" might be a good start.