Introduced through the books of Tom Clancy, and first encountered on-screen nearly a quarter of a century ago in The Hunt for Red October, the character of Jack Ryan has become a kind of secondary prize for actors who succeed as part of another franchise. This is a series that has now expanded to five films, while the character has been played by four different actors.
The series has seen a bizarre crossover where the people behind Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Batman, Daredevil and James T Kirk; characters loved by millions, are given the chance to try to infuse a degree of charm into a generic character without any discernible character traits. Ryan is anchored by a family relationship and defined purely by his role as an CIA analyst, a nondescript military career and his later participation in the CIA. There he somehow becomes part of plans to stop the advances of various different terrorist factions mainly from Russia, but also as far afield, as Columbia and even the IRA.
The latest entry sees a directorial effort by Kenneth Branagh, which I must admit caught my attention, as it followed his contribution to the interminable Marvel universe which has spewed across screens over the past 10 years. Branagh does bring some success in terms of character building, especially in the scenes between himself and Knightly. There is a sexual tension of a quality that the film does not deserve, and it casts a long shadow over the scenes between Pine and Knightly, which take the form of a nagging big sister complaining about her younger brother snooping about her room. There may have been a kiss, some romance, if there was it’s quickly forgotten.
We first encounter Jack Ryan as an Economics student in London on the day of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center buildings. The tragic events provide some hitherto unrequired motivation which leads him to become a marine in Afghanistan. This is turn unfortunately leaves him temporally crippled following a helicopter crash, though under the care of Dr Cathy Muller (Keira Knightly) and more importantly under the eye of Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) a recruitment man for the CIA who notices that Ryan has all the attributes to become a Shadow Agent. This being a role that will remain secret through his sheer lack of personality, not only from co-workers but also from Knightly, by way of creating some mild tension in their relationship for the purpose of the plot. So, with all the pieces in place, Ryan is sent to Wall Street where he uncovers unusual trading actions by Russian investors who have an altogether more sinister plan.
If being asked to pick a specific problem with the film, it has to be that it is plain average. It achieves every mark it tries to hit with nothing more than satisfactory success. Apart from the aforementioned scenes with Branagh and Knightly, it’s too eager to provide the goods that it anticipates the audience want. Thus there is action, there is running, cars are driven fast, people run some more, very quick phone calls are made letting other characters know of developments in the plot and then there’s some more running. It is undemanding material which doesn’t ask much of the audience in terms of background to the financial mechanics of the plot nor the relationship between Russia and the Western World. This is especially highlighted in the numerous scenes of covert meetings between shadowy Russian politicians in snowy woods. We all know Russian politicians have now moved on considerably since the days of the Cold War and are upstanding citizens in public office concerned with progress and development? OK, don’t answer that one.
Branagh’s directorial record has softened in recent years to include the likes of a remake of Sleuth, Thor and now Shadow Recruit. In places, it can be seen that he brings gravitas to overblown superhero fare like Thor, but I struggled to see what his interest is in making Shadow Recruit, a by-the-numbers action thriller. He seems more comfortable as an actor and director in the dialogue driven scenes than in the action parts, which while they are thankfully CGI free, in turn they lack any sense of thrill and awe.
His next film, a reworking of Cinderella for Disney does give some insight into what his future intentions are. Maybe he just wants to make films that his kids will be interested in, and with that caveat added he might just have succeeded here.