“Shadow Recruit†recovers after shaky start

“Shadow Recruit†recovers after shaky start

By Karsten Burgstahler

It has been almost 12 years since the last Jack Ryan movie, “The Sum of All Fears,” came to theaters. “Fears” was released just months after 9/11 and actually features a scene where terrorists nuke a football game.

While the movie was in production before the events of that day, the film took on a new light without expecting to have to. So in the new Jack Ryan movie, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (Rated PG-13; 105 Min.), writers Adam Cozad and David Koepp make it clear Ryan’s motivations are driven by 9/11. The movie begins on that day as the audience sees Ryan watch the plane hit the second tower through a reflection on the wall.

The problem with “Shadow Recruit” is it fast-forwards from this sequence too quickly. Instead of exploring how this moment turned an economic scholar into a soldier (the next shot is Ryan in a helicopter in Iraq), we get a very brief series of shots explaining Ryan’s background. Cozad and Koepp merely use 9/11 as a launching point, rather than a commentary on how that day changed anyone who watched it, at least until later on in the film.


9/11 has been explored in a variety of ways on film since the attacks. Some stories tackle it head on: “United 93” told the story of the passengers who overtook the hijackers and crashed their plane in Pennsylvania, and “World Trade Center,” which followed firefighters trapped in the rubble. Other movies also use the events as a launching point, or ending point, to varying success: “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” was set in motion after Tom Hanks died in the attacks, and the 2010 romance “Remember Me” actually used the events in a controversial twist ending one could argue bordered on insensitivity.

The best character study following the events was last year’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” which introduced 9/11 in a terrifying manner — the screen is dark as audio from news reports and the cell phones of people on the planes is blared through the speakers. That sequence set up a brilliant character study, in which the lead character Maya became obsessed with finding Osama bin Laden and was willing to condone anything, even torture, to get the job done. At the end of the film, after bin Laden is assassinated, the audience sees Maya climb aboard a plane and break down right before the camera goes dark. It’s a powerful ending to a sprawling 3-hour tale.

“Jack Ryan” fails to match this motivation in the acting department, somewhat because Chris Pine is not the greatest actor to be put in the CIA agent’s shoes, but also because a good portion of the dialogue in the film’s first third is clunky. The movie speeds from scene to scene instead of developing Ryan and his handler Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner). Luckily, the writers saved the best for later, really kicking the movie into gear about the time Ryan meets the film’s central antagonist Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, also the film’s director). Cherevin is a Russian banker who has plans to crash the U.S. economy, and Ryan is the only one smart enough to stop him. At least, that’s the way it seems after the fifth joke about how no one is coming to help him.

Instead of going over the top like in “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” which also featured a Russian threat to the United States, “Jack Ryan” sticks to the espionage and saves the big action piece for the climax. The series has been more about the plot than the explosions, a trait lost in the action-packed promotion for the film.

The film maintains prestige mainly through Branagh, the most interesting and well-developed character in the whole piece. The audience learns of his past and his obsessions, as well as the familial sacrifices he has made for the cause. “Jack Ryan” resurrects Cold War-era politics in an age where movies often portray the Middle East as the greatest threat to our way of life, something spy movies have avoided for quite a while. It harkens back to the paranoia thrillers of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, not as ridiculous as the Roger Moore-era Bond movies, but not as clever as the Sean Connery Bond era. However, like Ryan’s motivation, this retro plot device is an element the movie does not explore enough.

“Jack Ryan” is a consistently entertaining, lean, mean thriller that would benefit from more meat on its narrative’s bones. While the idea of Jack Ryan post-9/11 is worth exploring, the writers don’t give him the same dedication other 9/11 scripts have given their characters, and that keeps it from being a truly great spy film.