It'll likely make you favourably reassess The Sum of All Fears
Taut, efficient, and with all the right character actors chomping at the bit, 2014's Shadow Recruit is a competent, often engaging, but ultimately fairly generic little spy thriller.However, it doesn’t quite earn its place as an effective reboot of the Jack Ryan legacy, instead honing its standard espionage beats with that now-mandatory Bourne/Bond vibe, and unfortunately forgetting in the process that Ryan's everyman CIA analyst was anything but a super spy. The story plays out all the key events in Ryan's backstory - his heroic actions as a Marine, which led to his recurring back problems; how he met his future wife, Cathy, a budding doctor - before setting him off on his first CIA operation, working for shady senior agent Thomas Harper. It's here, however, where things start to unravel.
The deep cover mission as a compliance officer at a stock broker firm sees him travelling to Russia to investigate a dodgy businessman whose stock actions look - to Ryan - like they may be a part of a grand scheme to crash the US economy. Soon he finds himself in over his head, brawling with thuggish assassins and using his future wife as bait whilst he tries to hack into the Russian firm's computer system. Car and foot chases ensue, as well as a painstakingly contrived exposition scene which is supposed to show how smart Ryan is at putting the pieces together but is about as effective in that regard as the 6-screen computer wizardry that Hugh Jackman performed in Swordfish in an attempt to make for a convincing super-hacker.
I've loved the character of Jack Ryan since I first read Clear and Present Danger on release, all those decades ago. A mammoth text; a Count of Monte Christo-style epic with so many twists and turns, so much detail and diversion, that you never got the feeling that there were any winners or losers, just crosses, and double-crosses. And Ryan, however strong a protagonist, always knew his limitations - for the pure wet work, and clinical death-dealing, he turned to reluctant companion John Clark to get down and dirty. Clark was an operative, Ryan was an analyst, and the distinction was an important one (it'll be interesting to see how they handle the upcoming companion Ryan-verse tale, Without Remorse, which Costner's Harper will return for and which has none other than Tom Hardy taking on the lead role of John Clark).
For this latest reboot of the Jack Ryan franchise, the producers were determined to take their lead from the biggest hitters in the spy thriller field: Bourne, Bond, and the Mission: Impossible films.
I should have known from those early promo stills which depicted Chris Pine riding a motorbike in what looked like it could be a key action sequence, that they'd gone in the wrong direction. But I was too busy celebrating everything they appeared to have gotten right. I mean, who better to follow in the footsteps of Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck as this generation's everyman hero than Kirk himself, Chris Pine? He's got the charisma, and he's also thoroughly down to earth, it seemed like a perfect fit. And Kevin Costner as his supervisor? Great choice, Costner definitely needs more of these high profile mentor roles, especially after his exceptional work in Man of Steel. I didn't even have a problem with Kiera Knightley as Ryan's future wife, Cathy. Or Kenneth Branagh, taking not only directorial duties, but also the lead villain role.
The trouble comes in putting all of these pieces into place, and making a coherent, cohesive whole, whilst also staying true to the Ryan formula. Whilst Branagh is more than capable of staging action (Thor), and Pine a strong enough lead for any action-adventure, they lost sight on everything that made Ryan, Ryan. They produced this clean-cut, skilfully-edited and generally well-put-together thriller which ostensibly tells the backstory to a character some will know well, but which pays no heed whatsoever to the things that made him such an atypical hero in the first place, instead folding the whole thing into a generic spy actioner world which offers little to nothing new to those familiar with the territory.
Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes was in straying so far from Clancy's original works.
Whilst it was a shock seeing The Sum of All Fears reworked so drastically for Affleck's 2002 outing, Shadow Recruit makes The Sum of All Fears practically look like classic Clancy by comparison, and I'm sure many have more favourably reappraised that film in the years since its release. Shadow Recruit was instead based on an original spy script, and later adapted to make for a Ryan reboot by a succession of screenwriters. And it shows. Indeed you might wonder how one of the writers on the Clear and Present Danger screenplay - who was thus involved in one of the most tense and involving computer hacks sequences in cinematic history (the 'do you like tennis?' scene) could sign off on a script that would involve such a pale, generic imitation here.
For all the faults noted, there's no denying that Shadow Recruit is entertaining and diverting, even if it sometimes feels fitfully so. Everybody does their jobs well - Pine is charming and likeable, Knightley is elegant and endearing, Costner is reliably stoic and Branagh occasionally effuses menace. The action too, is, as aforementioned, well-staged, with one particular chase proving effective, and a couple of twists capable of genuinely blind-siding you.
But the fatal error that takes this film down a point for me is the fact that it could be the origin story of any spy. It could be a prequel tale about Ethan Hunt's recruitment in the early Mission: Impossible years. It's just about a more clumsy, in-over-his-head Bond character. Gone are almost any of the trademarks of Clancy's most popular hero, who could think his way out of any situation, and solve any puzzle with intellect and resourcefulness; gone is the upstanding patriot who would do the right thing no matter if that meant facing off against the President of the United States. Pine's rebooted shadow recruit is a far cry from embodying Baldwin's breezy in-over-his-head but do-what-ever-it-takes buckaroo, Ford's definitive 'how dare you, sir' incarnation of Ryan, or even Affleck's underrated amalgamation of the two. This newly-minted Jack Ryan is Mr. Just-another-generic-super-spy.
If they want to be respectful to Clancy's legacy, they're gonna' have to improve on this one with the next chapter.
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