28 January 2014

Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

(Dir: Kenneth Branagh, 2013)

There's a sense of desperation with how the American studio system seems so keen to get a Jack Ryan franchise properly off the ground. Surely this is rooted in a need to replicate the money-printing, decades long success of the Bond films, as what do the Americans have to offer as an equivalent? The Mission: Impossible films are fun but not much more, whilst the superb Bourne franchise regenerates itself. So we do this dance again with the fifth Jack Ryan film in twenty four years and the fourth actor to play the man. This version, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, opts for full reboot which is a wise decision when the characters history has been so fractured and twelve years have past since he last appeared in the guise of Ben Affleck in the hardly memorable The Sum of All Fears

We now have a Jack Ryan more fit this modern world and a forced ideology that he's radicalised into service by the events of September 11th 2001. This also means a youthful Ryan, someone that audiences might find more credible and theoretically want to watch, although I'm not convinced Chris Pine has got himself to that position in audience minds yet, regardless of the Star Trek franchise. He proves to be adequate in the role as the focus of the character is more on brains than brawn and he brings a certain all-American charisma and drive. Yet compared to a young Alec Baldwin (The Hunt For Red October) or Harrison Ford (Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger) he still feels pretty vanilla.

On the other hand Kevin Costner's role in the story, which proves to be bigger than expected, is one of two strengths. He convinces in the older, mentorish role which he seems ready to grow into now (see also Man of Steel) whilst also getting to wield a sniper rifle. Hopefully he takes on more of these roles in the future. Kenneth Branagh turns out to be the other strength, but solely from an acting perspective. His Russian accented Viktor Cherevin is of course slightly over-played in a very obvious way, but is quite fun to watch regardless of whether he truly lacks menace or not. The film is most enjoyable when either he or Costner are on screen, and at it's worst when Keira Knightley awkwardly bumbles her way through an American accent and the contrived nature of her character's presence. 

Limitations are also felt by Branagh's perfunctory directing, despite it being fairly snappily paced and utilising geopolitics and economics for a potentially interesting set-up. There never feels like much threat and most good scenes are undermined by stupid plotting and feeling like they could just be so much better. It's pleasing to see a return of the the classic Cold War enemy of spy films, particularly after A Good Day to Die Hard completely screwed up it's Russian setting last year, but it's still not a patch on what we've seen done in the past with either Jack Ryan films or spy thrillers in general. Matters aren't helped by some shockingly bad cinematography, with that modern "need" for action to be edited uncontrollably fast making scenes indiscernible, whilst some strange ideas about focus when it comes to the Russian scenery bemuse. 

All this leads to a thoroughly average film that never feels like it gets out of second gear, even if it still manages to offer some entertainment. Perhaps this is growing pains, but there's potential for another Jack Ryan film that could offer what really works in spy films, if Chris Pine can develop the character and we're given a more exciting and adventurous story. Oh, and no more of Keira Knightley's character, please!

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