Taking changing fashions and changing times in his stride, Ian Fleming’s British secret service agent James Bond entered his second half century as the hero of a globe-conquering series of films, as dauntless and as popular as ever.
By comparison, US author Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst Jack Ryan has stuttered and stumbled on screen. Six actors have played Bond in 23 films over 50 years. Ryan has been through four different screen incarnations in two decades yet the goal of establishing a film franchise with real momentum seems to have defeated him.
Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck have all had a go with the role. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the latest attempt to reboot Clancy’s gung-ho hero on screen, finds a fresh-faced Chris ‘Captain Kirk’ Pine stepping up the challenge.
It’s an origins story, which gives director Kenneth Branagh the chance to canter through Ryan’s early career in the film’s opening scenes – brainy PhD student at the London School of Economics, spurred to join the US military by 9/11, blown up in Afghanistan and recruited by the CIA while recovering from his injuries under the tender care of doctor-soon-to-be-girlfriend Keira Knightley.
With all this briskly covered, the plot proper can get underway as Ryan, working undercover on Wall Street, gets sent to Moscow by handler Kevin Costner to undertake his first mission. His goal: thwart the nefarious schemes of a vengeful Russian oligarch (played with thin-lipped menace and obligatory thick accent by Branagh himself) who is plotting to send the dollar into freefall and crash the US economy.
Costner has sold the mission to him as an office job, but after barely surviving an assassination attempt – a bruisingly brutal, suffocatingly tense encounter – Ryan finds his on-the-job-training becoming ever more perilous.
As spy thrillers go, Shadow Recruit is entertaining enough, competently if not spectacularly put together by Branagh. Pine, a convincing mix of callow and clever, makes a decent fist of the lead role; Knightley has a good stab at an American accent; and Costner is good value as Pine’s buttoned-up mentor.
Yet there’s something decidedly old-fashioned about the whole enterprise – and not only because depicting the CIA as copper-bottomed, unalloyed good guys and Russians as the baddies suggests a mindset stuck in the Cold War era. The plotting is fairly hackneyed as well, with standard-issue office break-ins and routine car chases, right down to the inevitable ticking bomb climax. And the action – with the exception of that first attempt on Ryan’s life – lacks the furious kinetic urgency the Bourne movies brought to the secret agent genre.
But the film does just enough to keep the viewer on board, and the byplay between Pine and Knightley – gate crashing Ryan’s Moscow mission to his dismay – produces the odd flash of wit, not least in the scene when he finally comes clean about his job.
– I’m in the CIA.
– Thank God! I thought you were having an affair.
Certificate 12A. Runtime 105 mins. Director Kenneth Branagh.
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