Having clung to the Russians as go-to villains long after the Cold War thawed, the movies find themselves current again with their favorite archenemy.
Cooling Russo-American relations have yielded an opening for the return of Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst, just in time for the Sochi Olympics.
In the Jack Ryan reboot, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Chris Pine takes over as the spy who was portrayed by Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October), Harrison Ford (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger) and Ben Affleck (The Sum of All Fears).
It’s a decent legacy of a dark-haired, intellectual action hero. Ryan is a navigator of murky, reasonably realistic, international espionage worlds. He has neither James Bond’s preternatural suavity nor Jason Bourne’s visceral butt-kicking skills, but instead anxiously finds his way with patriotic cunning.
Shadow Recruit, which was scripted without a Clancy book by Adam Cozad and David Koepp, tells a new backstory for Ryan. Inspired by Sept. 11, he joins the Marines and is heroically injured in Afghanistan. During his recovery, he meets his eventual fiancee (a doctor named Cathy played by Keira Knightley) and is lured to the CIA by a mysterious recruiter (Kevin Costner, unconvincingly trying to exude a Donald Sutherland-like gravitas).
He’s covertly embedded at a Wall Street bank where he uncovers a Russian plot to buy up U.S. Treasury bonds, which he suspects will be sold off in a coordinated act of terrorism and currency devaluation. Surely, if Ronald Reagan (whose endorsement of Clancy’s first novel, The Hunt for Red October, propelled his fame) was still around, he’d swoon over a spy thriller based on the harrowing threat of inflation.
Ryan’s investigation leads him to the Russian oligarch Viktor Cherevin, portrayed by Kenneth Branagh, who also directed the film. Certainly, it takes a bite out of the nationalistic politics when the movie’s villain is played by a knighted British actor known for his Shakespeare work.
Branagh endows this film with (mostly) old-fashioned competency — something often lacking in today’s action films — but little to distinguish it from superior thrillers that have come before. The best thing here is the sleekness of modern Moscow, where much of the action takes place. The film is filled with a nighttime mix of neon and taillights set against the Kremlin and other monuments — a handsome enough rendering to send a viewer back to the recent Bond, Skyfall, for those elegant Shanghai scenes.
But Shadow Recruit is also disappointingly formulaic, relying on the familiar set piece-driven story of an implausible heist and a time-bomb finale. Knightley is too strong a force for this girlfriend role. And when the global scheme is figured out in a minute with a bank of computer-searching analysts, one foresees the obsolescence of the action film: sprawling plots undone with a few keystrokes.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is perhaps most significantly a test for Pine as a movie star. Early in the film, when Ryan is forced to defend his life in a hotel room battle, he ably depicts the shock and horror of a man encountering such a circumstance for the first time.
But Pine also fails to make his Jack Ryan more than an afterthought to Baldwin’s know-it-all or Ford’s reluctant hero. As Costner’s character says, he too much resembles "a Boy Scout on a field trip."
One unlikely cameo should be noted: New York’s famed repertory art-house theater, the Film Forum, appears early in the movie when Ryan swaps information at a screening of Sorry, Wrong Number. At least in Shadow Recruit, the interior has finally been upgraded to plush stadium seating.
(Christopher Lawrence is an entertainment writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at CLawrence@reviewjournal.com)