While Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is the latest manifestation of Hollywood's current vogue of restarting storied franchises from the ground up, the previous Ryan film, 2002's The Sum of All Fears, was sort of the progenitor of the trend, rebooting Tom Clancy's literary hero a solid three years before Batman Begins ostensibly popularized the practice. As such, we're left with the somewhat bizarre statistic that three of the five Jack Ryan movies are "The First Jack Ryan movie." Given how much success the series has reaped for home studio Paramount in decades past, you start to wonder why the filmmakers (franchise overseer Mace Neufeld foremost among them) don't get out of their own way.
During the twelve years since Sum, when Ben Affleck had his turn as the ever-harried CIA analyst (following Alec Baldwin in 1990's The Hunt For Red October, and Harrison Ford in 1992's Patriot Games and 1994's Clear & Present Danger), an entire generation has come of age with no particular connection to or even knowledge of the character. Thus, it's somewhat understandable that we've gone back to before the beginning for this go-round, getting a ringside seat as the college-age John Patrick Ryan (now played by Chris Pine) is moved to enlist in the military following the 9/11 attacks, and eventually finds himself recruited into the CIA as an embedded numbers analyst on Wall Street.
When he uncovers a scheme by Russian radicals to collapse the US economy (and the global economy by extension) via various buyouts and short sales, Ryan is sent to Moscow to investigate, under the watchful eye of his agency mentor Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner). While there, Ryan must somehow outwit shady Russian businessman Viktor Cherevin (Branagh, doing double duty in front of the camera as well) and also try to make his relationship with long-suffering girlfriend Dr. Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), who's also tagged along for the trip, work out. Yep, just another day's work for Our Man Jack.
I've never been disappointed with a Jack Ryan movie, and Shadow Recruit is no exception. At a breezy hundred minutes, it barrels along efficiently, and rarely bogs down enough to make us fully cognizant of some of the improbabilities nestled under the hood. What it doesn't do as successfully, unfortunately, is underscore the continued relevance of Ryan as a character in the post-Cold War era the way Casino Royale did for Bond in '06. As our fourth Ryan in five movies, Pine does a nice job of embodying the essential everyman qualities that make him a kind of nega-Bond, even while the film itself bucks tradition by not using an extant Clancy tome as a starting point.
While there are some cursory similarities here with that other Paramount icon Pine recently rebooted, the major difference is that Pine's Ryan is confident without being cocksure. The teacher-student bond he forms with Costner's Harper, who marks Ryan for recruitment early on while watching him convalesce from injuries sustained in Afghanistan, is one of the more effective through-lines of the film. Not as effective, however, is the relationship with Muller -- partly from a traditionally underwritten role being no better served here, and partly from said role being force-fed into a globe-spanning espionage yarn (presumably to accommodate a larger piece of the action for Knightley).
I'd never have pegged the "techno thriller" genre to be Branagh's comfort zone, but the Shakespeare vet (and Thor helmer) finds a nice groove here, executing the third act's ticking-clock chase through Manhattan with a fair amount of panache, however predictable the endgame ends up being. And speaking of endgames, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit rarely rises to the level of "exceptional," but is a serviceable enough entry that, had Paramount been more diligent about keeping the series plugging along, we'd probably already talking about the next one. Instead, by failing to measure up to the expectations that come from a twelve-year build-up, it's looking like Jack Ryan's new beginning may well be his end. Which is a shame. B-