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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – The Sum of All Ryans

When we last saw Jack Ryan -- CIA analyst and reluctant action hero -- on the big screen, he was racing against the clock to prevent an all-out nuclear war between American and Russia, the favorite antagonist of his creator, Tom Clancy. He also looked a lot like Ben Affleck, who had inherited the role from Harrison Ford, who in turn had inherited it from Alec Baldwin in a string of regenerations of Doctor Who-vian proportions. The casting switch was intended to give a fresh start to the then-three movie franchise, but following a respectable (though far from stellar) box-office performance, Affleck's Ryan was prematurely retired instead. (Just as well; there are a number of reasons why The Sum of All Fears didn't work and Affleck's callow performance tops the list. Funnily enough, though, he'd probably make a great fortysomething Ryan if he were to attack the part today.) A decade later, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit offers up another Ryan regeneration from which the character emerges with the face and form of Chris Pine. More notably, though, this is the first Ryan adventure that isn't directly based on a Clancy novel and perhaps that explains why it works as well as it does… at least until it doesn't.

By putting aside the Clancy books, screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp and director Kenneth Branagh avoid the pothole that the Sum scribes drove into as they attempted to retrofit that book -- which was a mid-career Ryan tale -- into an origin story. Shadow Recruit has more room to maneuver in the way it re-introduces the character, kicking off with a pre-credits "Who he is and how he came to be" catch-up that follows the broad outline of the character's established history (economics major, military career that ends courtesy of helicopter accident that results in a lifelong back injury, blossoming romance with a pretty doctor, recruitment into the CIA), but sets him down in a distinctly post-9/11 world. Once that backstory is out of the way, we find Ryan living in New York with his girlfriend Cathy (Keira Knightley) and working as a financial analyst for a big Wall Street firm, where he's well-positioned to pass along suspicious, potentially terrorism-tied transactions to his actual bosses back at Langley, including his recruiter, Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner, a face you should get used to seeing this year, since he's got four movies hitting theaters between now and next fall).

One bit of insider trading by Russian tycoon Viktor Cherevin (Branagh, who, as a director, is his own best casting agent) proves suspect enough for the Agency to dispatch their inside man to Moscow, where he unexpectedly transitions from analyst to operative when he narrowly avoids an assassination attempt and subsequently discovers that apparent Ra's al Ghul disciple Cherevin plans to bring America to its knees via the ultimate weapon: economics. Although Branagh's hammy performance suggests that he's auditioning for a role as a Bond (or Batman) villain, the actual plot mechanics remain fairly grounded for the first hour of Shadow Recruit. Where Sum based Ryan's first mission away from his desk around a nuclear attack -- complete with him being knocked out of the sky by the blast, yet conveniently landing far away enough from the fallout that he wasn't in danger of dying from radiation poisoning -- Shadow offers the character a less grandiose transition into the spy game, starting with a deliberately inelegant, close-quarters brawl with his would-be assassin (a brief, but enjoyable turn by Game of Thrones's Nonso Anozie a.k.a. Dracula's Renfield) followed by a nighttime infiltration of Cherevin's offices where stealth is valued over firepower.

Besides side-stepping action movie overkill, these low-key, but effectively tense set-pieces give Pine a chance to win the audience over to Ryan's side through a vulnerable portrayal of the character that owes more to Bruce Willis's John McClane (in the original Die Hard anyway) than any of his predecessors in the part. Much as he did during his maiden voyage as the young Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams's Star Trek overhaul, the actor is able to make his freshly rebooted character's inexperience endearing rather than annoying. Pine's average guy charisma, along with Costner's sturdy presence in the mentor role, lends the franchise the most dramatic juice it's had since The Hunt for Red October and helps distract from some of the ungainly plotting, as well as a retro view of American/Russian relations that feels like the writers' attempt to placate the Cold War-minded Clancy, who passed away last October just after filming wrapped. (On the other hand, the attempts to generate personal drama between Jack and Cathy mostly fall short as Knightley is a total washout, stiffly standing by looking bored, lost or both. It's a missed opportunity, as the character has a more substantial presence here than she's enjoyed in any of her past incarnations.)

The relative believability of Shadow Recruit's first half is why it's all the more disappointing when, in the absurdly amped-up final act, Ryan suddenly goes from zero-to-60 in the action hero department, transforming from a noob who just barely outlasts a professional hitman to a guy capable of performing sweet-ass motorcycle stunts and overpowering a trained-since-birth terrorist. The entire climax represents a sharp left turn into generic Bond/Bourne territory that undoes a fair amount of the goodwill generated up to the point, not to mention the filmmakers' attempts to establish their own distinct brand. It's also not the best fit for Branagh's particular set of skills as a director; just as he whiffed on the comic book spectacle in Thor, he demonstrates a middling aptitude for the super-spy stunts that seems to come so naturally to directors like Paul Greengrass and Martin Campbell. Still, Shadow Recruit does accomplish its primary goal: it re-introduces Jack Ryan to moviegoers without the baggage of the books and provides him with a launching pad for more adventures that will hopefully let Ryan be Ryan instead of Jason Bourne.

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