Heading into the release of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit the main question that plagued me was just how much cache this character has with the general audience. How many people sitting in that theater were going to know that Ryan, now portrayed by Chris Pine, is the same character that has been played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck in the past two decades? When trying to create a brand to market, that kind of penetration is key, and this character simply doesn’t have it. While some could argue that is exactly what Paramount and director Kenneth Branagh are trying to create with Shadow Recruit, I still argue that the films biggest downfall is in the failures of it’s predecessors.
It boils down to those prior films doing nothing to portray Ryan as a franchise player. There was no correlation between Baldwin’s Hunt for Red October and Affleck’s Sum of All Fears, nor Ford’s Clear and Present Danger or Patriot Games, either. Those films all had their fans, some more than other, and all were well made even if most people didn’t know they all featured the same central character. Now, we are asked to accept that same character as a new age James Bond or Jason Bourne, and I’m not sure I’m ready to buy it, yet.
As a stand-alone film, Shadow Recruit does it’s job well enough, it’s pretty standard espionage fare, a young Jack Ryan gets contacted by Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) claiming to be part of the CIA, who recruits him to work for the covert organization as an analyst, to help keep America safe in a post 9/11 world where threats are present both from the outside as well as within. Eventually Ryan is put into the field, when a set of circumstances come together that see’s him as the only one with the proper knowledge to understand the threat at hand, but why is it that a fairly unproven analyst is the only man in the entirety of the CIA that has that knowledge?
It’s one of the few things that the film fails to explain properly. The CIA is, clearly, an intelligence organization. So, why don’t they have dozens of analysts throughout the globe with not only the knowledge but, unlike Ryan, the field training and experience that would make them far better suited for the task at hand? It’s never explained, but nevertheless, Ryan is sent to Moscow in the hopes of stopping an economic attack of terrorism at the hands of Viktor Cherevin, played by the films director Branagh.
On top of that international espionage, the film also features the standard at-home variety as well, with Ryan having to juggle his life of lies and his relationship with his live-in girlfriend Cathryn (Keira Knightley). Knightley does an alright job in her turn as the future wife of Jack Ryan, although it should be noted that her American accent certainly needs a bit of work, but her character lacks a bit at times as well. We learn early on in the film that Jack proposed to her prior to the events of the film, but she refused. Her reasons for refusal are never revealed or discerned from what happens throughout the film, which could have been a decent avenue to explore but is just another loose-end left untouched.
Going back to the comparison to characters like Bond and Bourney, though, the problem is that Shadow Recruit doesn’t do much to show why Jack Ryan is going to be a central character like that. Aside from showing his bravery, he signs up to be a marine rather than finish his doctorate just after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, Ryan is never portrayed as an expert analyst or a competent agent in the field. He’s run by his emotions and shows his hesitation in being placed in the field throughout the film. Whereas Bond is immediately different from the rest of his MI6 colleagues and Bourne has his intense training and combat proficiency, Ryan is just another CIA pencil pusher until being thrown into this situation. The only time he is shown as more is late in the film where he helps to figure out the location of an attack on American soil, but it’s a scene that should have been repeated, and seen much earlier to help sell the characters potential.
It sounds like I hated the film, which I certainly did not. As a film it does enough to be entertaining, it just also feels like a ton of missed potential. And with the character being one that is relatively unknown, or at best forgotten by audiences, it remains to be seen if a franchise can be cultivated from this freshmen output. If you’re just looking for some fun spy fare, you could do a lot worse than Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and is a solid film to spend your afternoon with, it just falls short of some of the genre’s best when looked at for comparison.