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Movie Review | Jack Ryan series reboots with ‘Shadow Recruit’

Published: Monday, January 27, 2014

Updated: Monday, January 27, 2014 07:01

In an era of reboot and sequel-crazed Hollywood, with studios increasingly eager to stake their fortunes on just a handful of tent pole films each year, the value of name recognition to studios can’t be overstated. After all, there’s a reason that someone (albeit an unfortunately misguided individual) thought that making a “Battleship” (2012) film was a good idea. There are numerous franchises in Hollywood that are near-guarantees at the box office just based on name recognition alone. Jason Bourne? Check. James Bond? Check. Jack Ryan? Eh, not so much.

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is the fifth entry in the “Jack Ryan” film series — which are adapted from author Tom Clancy’s spy novels — but this latest reboot attempt isn’t based on any specific novel like previous films have been. Ignoring the fact that Jack Ryan hasn’t been a household name for quite some time, the titular protagonist (Chris Pine) bears only a few traits that set him apart from any generic spy hero. This fact also applies to most of “Jack Ryan,” which is an entertaining but ultimately shapeless film that fails to truly set itself apart from other entries in the genre.

“Jack Ryan” starts off promisingly enough, having altered the Cold War origins of the character and updating them to fit a post-9/11 era of military intelligence. Ryan was a Ph.D student at the London School of Economic, before he interrupted his studies to join the military following the attacks on 9/11. Ryan is critically injured in Afghanistan and learns to walk again after a lengthy rehab period, aided by future girlfriend Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley). He is then recruited for the CIA by shady operative Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), completes his Ph.D and begins work for the agency as an economic analyst, going undercover on Wall Street to help uncover financial ties to terror organizations.

This premise offers hope that “Jack Ryan” will be an engaging thriller that sets itself apart from the pack by focusing on Ryan’s intellect and not running headfirst into the plot guns blazing. And for a while it seems like the film will take this route, with Ryan uncovering a Russian scheme to sink the U.S. and world economy and taking off to Moscow to try and stop main villain Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh). But once Ryan lands, the film shifts gear into generic thriller mode and never looks back. Branagh, pulling double duty as the film’s director, executes a series of well-done if predictable action set pieces, filled with various chases, fights and high-tech heists.

If “Jack Ryan” had more compelling characters, the bland nature of the film could be forgiven. But the protagonist and supporting cast are stripped of any particularly interesting traits, and any characteristic that could be intriguing is merely hinted at but never developed. The actors do the best with what they’re given, but it’s slim pickings when the villain’s not-so timely motivation lies in a nearly 30-year-old grudge from the Cold War and Knightley is ultimately reduced to damsel in distress status. Even Ryan doesn’t have much in the way of discernible traits or character flaws to make him engaging; the film tries to play up his struggles with a once-injured leg, but that’s quickly abandoned when he begins jumping from moving vehicles. It also feels like a missed opportunity that “Jack Ryan” underutilizes an appropriately gruff Costner, whose character could have perhaps served as an opportunity for commentary on the increasing levels of intelligence surveillance seen in headlines today.

Despite these shortcomings, “Jack Ryan” is a rather enjoyable movie to watch, if just for sheer escapism alone. Branagh expertly paces the film, so the bland nature of the characters is masked a bit by not focusing on any one of them for too long. While all the ingredients for an engaging thriller are present, the movie fails to successfully bring them together for a more fulfilling experience. By not having an engaging protagonist in the vein of Jason Bourne or James Bond, or the wild stunts of a series like the “Mission Impossible” films, “Jack Ryan” simply splits the difference and opts for the inoffensive yet generic middle road which, in the barren wasteland of cinema that is January, seems to be good enough.

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