Movie Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)


jack ryan

by Alan F. Zundel

An action thriller needs at least two things: action and thrills. “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” has a little action, but not many thrills.

It strives to capture the look and sound of the Jason Bourne series, with the names of cities scrolled out ticker-tape style at the bottom of new locations and insistent stringed-instrument music trying to pump up the suspense. Unfortunately, the reminder of that much-superior series just serves to highlight the shortcomings of what otherwise would be a movie okay to kill time with if stuck in some motel room overnight.

The character of Jack Ryan is based on the espionage novels of Tom Clancy, none of which I have read. In this movie (there were four previous Ryan movies with different actors in the title role), Ryan is a grad student in London when he sees news reports of the 9/11 attacks and decides to join the military. After being wounded in Afghanistan, he is recruited into the CIA as an analyst working undercover on Wall Street and discovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy. The real action starts when Ryan travels to Russia to foil the plot.

There are two action scenes that are pretty good. One is early in the movie when Jack first arrives in Russia and fights for his life against an assassin in his hotel room. The scene is well-staged and edited but not much different from hundreds of other fights scenes in the movies; there is nothing especially memorable about it.

Compare that to the first Jason Bourne movie when Jason arms himself with a fountain pen in his fight against an assassin. A fountain pen! Show a little imagination and your fight scene becomes more interesting.

The other good action scene is near the very end of the movie, capping off an otherwise run-of-the mill chase scene—one featuring the standard digital clock on a bomb, no less. (Good grief!) The good part is when Ryan and a villain are tussling in the back of a van heading toward the edge of a dock and Ryan is hanging out of the open back doors. That particular part of the sequence I did find thrilling, because it looked realistic. Kudos to the stunt team.

Chris Pine does a serviceable job as Jack Ryan, and shows signs of acting talent that defy the limitations of the script. He does not have the “regular guy” charisma of Matt Damon (I don’t either), but would be a good second-tier action star if given a better script. (I might make tier 500 if I worked out more regularly.)

Established stars Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley and Kenneth Branagh (who also directed) similarly elevate the material, although at times their energy level descends to a sense of resignation that the effort may not be worth it.

As for the script: you can forgive a screenplay for dishing up an implausible story—the foundation of any good thriller is an implausible story—but it has to help the viewer get into the spirit of things.

“Suspension of disbelief” happens when the audience is given enough plausible and semi-plausible information to buy into the impossible elements. There were just too many impossible plot points to take. Ryan not only understands arcane financial transactions (the movie leaves his methods arcane), he defeats a trained assassin, fools the villain with his acting skills (a villain who earlier warned a colleague to be on guard with him), hacks into a sophisticated computer network, demonstrates quick-thinking detective skills which befuddle his more-experienced mentor, and dodges through traffic on a motorcycle at high speed.

Where did he learn all this? Please, give us a hint, screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp.

Failing that, you could at least use wit to concede the silliness of it all and help the audience have fun with it. The most witty of the almost zero funny lines is when Costner’s character says, “This is geo-politics, not couples therapy.”

But I had no respite from the chronic questions that popped up in my mind. When Ryan’s girlfriend learns he is a CIA agent and they are in danger, why is she not frightened? Where did she learn the acting skills to help him fool the villain? Why, if 9/11 patriotism sets up the story, were Russians made the villains? How exactly did Ryan figure out the timing of the terrorist act and the location of the terrorist? (That part flew by at warp speed.) Why, when Ryan and his girlfriend wake up in the morning, is he clean shaven and she wearing make-up?

This is one of those movies that it is best not to think about, because when you do you find more and more to complain about. I don’t like to dwell on the negative (could’ve fooled you, right?), so I will end on a more positive note.

It was nice to see Dearborn, Michigan, my wife’s hometown, appear as one of the locations in a globe-spanning espionage flick. That brought a smile to my face.


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