Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
The latest film in the popular Jack Ryan series is a prequel, taking place in the modern day, but giving us Ryan on his first mission in the field. Shadow Recruit opens on the eponymous Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) at London School of Economics, asleep on a park bench, only to be woken by gasps of horror, as he rushes to the TV screens and we find out the date – 9/11, horrified by the attack on America, we jump to eighteenth months later, where Jack has dropped out and joined the military. After an injury lands him hospital unable to walk, we skip forward again, to find Jack in physio, learning to walk, where he meets his future wife, Kathy (Keira Knightley), and his future boss, CIA agent Harper (Kevin Costner.) Harper wants to recruit Jack to the CIA, send him back to LSE to finish his Economics PHD, and use his brilliant mind to track financial transactions and keep an eye out for terrorists.
Got all that? Good. Because that’s just the first fifteen minutes before the time card Shadow Recruit lays a lot on you before the opening titles, and while it sets out who Jack Ryan is, and introduces many of the supporting characters, it still seems somewhat unnecessary. It sets up Jack as a highly patriotic man, with a back injury, and a brilliant mind. Yet all this is clear throughout the film, we constantly see examples of Ryan’s heroism and his incredible mind. While it is nice seeing the start of Jack and Kathy’s relationship, and seeing how Harper recruited Jack, it seems a little unnecessary.
The main story takes place between New York and Moscow, focusing on Jack Ryan’s first mission in the field. After discovering evidence of irregular financial transactions within Russia that could be related to terrorism Jack is sent to Moscow to investigate. Within minutes of landing, he’s already been nearly assassinated and has made his first kill (which seemed odd seeing as he was in the Marines in Iraq.) After meeting with Harper – which begs the question why send Ryan in the first place, if a more experienced man is already there – we learn that the Russians have a plan to crash the world economy, massively bankrupting the US, and causing a second great depression. Why? In retaliation for the US deciding to back another countries (I forget which) pipeline, cutting Russia’s monopoly on natural resources.
Oh yes, in the midst of all this Kathy, fearing Jack is being unfaithful, flies out to Moscow to see him, only to get caught up in the middle of the entire situation, as Jack reveals the truth to her, only for her to join him on a mission, get kidnapped, and need rescuing. Other than the seemingly obligatory need for every film to have a relationship the audience has to root for, and a damsel-in-distress, her character seems to only be included to raise the stakes. Given that Ryan has less than 24 hours to stop the world sinking into uncontrollable bankruptcy, you would have thought the tensions were high enough all ready, but I’m not a screen writer.
The mastermind of this evil plot? Victor Cherevin (Director Kenneth Branagh) whose Russian accent is probably the strongest part of his character. As a villain Victor is incredible Bond-esque, falling pretty square in the moustache twirling stereotype. It seems either the writers or director couldn’t decide how to play him, (and seeing as actor and director are the same, and I’m pretty confident who is to blame) and thus we can get a mix between Blofeld and Hannibal Lecter – having Victor sniff Kathy after taking her hostage was probably meant to be creepy, but it came off as very weird.
It is clear to see that Branagh is enjoying playing the character, but this cannot save him from being the weakest part of the film. Keira Knightley, once you get past the oddness of hearing her speak with a US accent, puts in a good performance as Kathy, and Costner is great as the CIA spook Harper, but it is Pine who stands out. He is Jack Ryan, embodying his every emotion – the scene following Jack’s first kill, of how he feels, is utterly convincing. Pine plays Jack like a Casino Royale era-Bond in the action sequences, unsure of himself in the field, while in the moments where Ryan’s mind comes to the front, he channels Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes. Should this film be successful enough to start the franchise the studio is seeking, Pine is definitely the man for the job.
Unlike previous Jack Ryan films, like Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears, Shadow Recruit is not written by Tom Clancy, or based on any of his novels, but is its own, original, story. While the story serves up a good, if predictable, thriller, it is pretty farfetched, never fully explaining why only Jack can stop Cherevin, and not any other CIA agent who isn’t on their first mission in the field.
One minor quibble I had with the story was in the decision for Knightley to use an American accent. Not because it is bad, on the contrary, her accent is pretty good – the problem I had was how alien it sounded, hearing an American accent leaving Keira Knightley’s mouth. Other than loyalty to Clancy’s original source material, I can’t see why she couldn’t have been British, the story wouldn’t have had to be changed at all, and it would have seemed more natural.
Perhaps my biggest disappointment with Shadow Recruit was the direction. I am a big fan of Branagh’s previous work, especially Thor which has a place in my heart as both a Marvel movie, fantasy action, and a fish out of water tale, but Shadow Recruit was a letdown. Clearly influenced by the Bourne franchise, the action shots are quickly edited, flashing from frame to frame too fast for the eye to follow, making it hard to see who is hitting/shooting who. These scenes reminded me of the action in Quantum of Solace in this way – and that is not a good thing, QoS standing as a prime example of how not to shoot action sequences in my opinion. It is a shame that the action pieces are such a letdown, as broadly speaking the other sequences, especially the character moments, are far better directed – although maybe this is to be expected from someone with roots in Shakespeare like Branagh.
The pacing is off from the start, with the aforementioned long introduction, and doesn’t really find its feet till the very end. The runtime, while no Hobbit or Wolf of Wall Street, could be trimmed down, something the film could benefit from.
One massive problem that I had with Shadow Recruit was with one particular shot, which was so bad it jarred me completely out of the film. When Jack arrives in Moscow, he is being shown the sights by his driver, who points out the landmarks to him while they cross a bridge. Cue a long, sweeping round shot of the Moscow skyline. Or at least that’s what I think it was meant to be – the sequence is so poorly shot and blurred, it’s hard to tell it from any skyline, or in fact, anything other than one big blur. Whether a result of poor cinematography, editing, or direction, the shot completely took me out of the film, my sense of immersion utterly destroyed by a shot that I wouldn’t expect to see in a home movie, let alone a Hollywood blockbuster.
Despite a weak villain, flawed direction, all over the place pacing, and one truly awful shot, Shadow Recruit gets by on its entertaining (if predictable) story, and the strength of (the majority of) its main cast. Despite its flaws, I still enjoyed it, and that’s why it still scrapes a recommend from me. 6/10
On a side note: (Potential spoilers, but I’ll try and be as vague as possible) I am sure the explosion right at the end would do a lot more damage to the surrounding area then a big plume of water, given its size! You can’t have an explosions like that in a big city like New York without some damage, surely!