This is not a January release. This belongs in another time of the year, when actual quality films are welcome. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit probably doesn’t rank among the espionage elites, but it’s still a first-rate piece of grown-up entertainment. There’s no cheese or fake blood or rubbery CGI monsters like every other release this month. Indeed, it deftly reboots one of Hollywood’s more durable franchises for a whole new generation: slight in purpose but still pursuing it with terrific skill.
Credit for that largely goes to director Kenneth Branagh, intent on further stretching his range beyond Shakespeare. He did tremendously well with the action scene in Thor and maintains an equally strong touch with more modest mayhem here. The high point is a chase through the streets of Moscow as reluctant CIA agent Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) desperately searches for a villain on the run. Said villain is played by Branagh too, and while the man is cheeky enough to give himself not one but two grand entrances, he does it so fantastically well that I’m incline to forgive him here.
He benefits from a film that far higher on plot and character than we might suspect. It charts Ryan’s earliest days in the CIA, starting when he volunteers for the Army after 9/11, and continuing through his helicopter accident, slow rehabilitation and eventual recruitment into the Company as an analyst. His mentor, Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner, welcome back big guy!) warns him not to make attachments, but he does so anyway by falling for the pretty intern (Keira Knightley) helping him learn to walk again. It’s tough, even though he’s just an analyst. She thinks he’s cheating on her and in a way he is.
That kind of dynamic firmly anchors the storyline, which kicks into overdrive once a complicated threat involving economic terrorism arises from behind the Iron Curtain. We care about Ryan’s relationship as much as whether he’ll get the bad guy, which helps the film overcome its biggest potential pitfall. Ryan has the potential to be a real bore: a straight-laced Boy Scout too squeaky clean to be believed. Alec Baldwin escaped that trap by being the only guy in the room who knew the truth. Harrison Ford got by on pure movie-star charm and Ben Affleck couldn’t quite clear the hurdle. Pine does it by binding us to his troubled efforts to keep his wife in the dark, as well as by the grim realities he faces in the field. We like this guy, squeaky clean or no, and we care about him beyond his ability to save the day.
That’s a good thing because the plot, while smart, threatens to dip into the mechanistic at times. True to its Tom Clancy source, Jack Ryan revels in the keen little details of spycraft, often at the expense of an organic story. Thankfully, Branagh knows his way around complicated plotting, and lets us thrill to the bits of how-they-do-it trivia so the narrative can do its work unobtrusively. He does better in the first half of the film than the second half, when the action moves stateside and becomes much more pedestrian in the process. But his confidence never flags and he manages to finish things with a surprising amount of panache.
And again, we’re not used to seeing things like this in January. Paramount doesn’t quite seem sure what to do with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, which looks to get clobbered at the box office despite heavy promotion. The intended audience is probably burnt out on Oscar bait right now, and may smell a rat with the film’s weird release date. That does it a tremendous disservice. This movie not only deserves to be seen but to bring Ryan back into theaters with the grace and respect he deserves. It’s a terrific reboot for a potentially brilliant character. Better catch it now before it’s gone.