Stepping back into the spotlight just a few months after Tom Clancy’s death, the author’s famed CIA-analyst hero gets a spiffy new avatar but a fairly routine assignment in “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.” Crisp, efficient and appreciably modest in scale for a picture that imagines a Russian terrorist attack massive enough to upstage 9/11, this conspicuous attempt to breathe new life into a long-dormant action franchise gets at least a few things right, chiefly the shrewd casting of Chris Pine in a role enjoyably incarnated in the ’90s by Alec Baldwin (“The Hunt for Red October”) and Harrison Ford (“Patriot Games,” “Clear and Present Danger”) before being left for dead by Ben Affleck in 2002’s “The Sum of All Fears.” But while it zips along divertingly enough and capably weaves together various topical threads involving renewed U.S.-Russia hostility and global economic instability, Kenneth Branagh’s latest helming effort ultimately feels assembled from too many recycled genre parts to achieve more than muffled impact in the end.
Wisely pushed back to Jan. 17 from its originally scheduled Christmas Day bow, the Paramount release should take advantage of a noncompetitive post-holiday frame, appealing to audiences eager for unchallenging, well-acted, not entirely mindless popcorn fare following a slew of December awards-season hopefuls. International prospects also look solid for a franchise that has generally held its own overseas, although in almost all respects, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Reboot” — er, “Recruit” — has been conceived as a fresh departure from its predecessors, starting with a screenplay that can be considered original to the extent that it isn’t based on one of Clancy’s nine Ryan novels.
As though acknowledging that the author’s bestselling procedurals hailed from an earlier chapter of geopolitical warfare, scribes David Koepp and Adam Cozad have effectively repositioned Ryan’s origin story in a post-9/11 context. At the same time, the film reactivates some fairly hoary spy-thriller cliches in a way that nonetheless eerily reflects the heightened friction between the U.S. and Russia, in light of the Edward Snowden affair, the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, and the Russian Foreign Ministry’s recent expulsion of American journalist David Satter.
A handsome young American studying at the London School of Economics when 9/11 hits, John Patrick Ryan (Pine) is spurred into action and joins the Marines, subsequently enduring a baptism by fire when his helicopter is shot down over Afghanistan in 2003. As he recovers from his injuries, two key figures enter his life: Cathy (Keira Knightley), a striking medical student with an irresistible tough-love approach to physical therapy; and William Harper (Kevin Costner), a world-weary CIA veteran who sets up the promising young operative for a career in financial intelligence. A decade later, Ryan is living in New York with Cathy and working as a Wall Street mole, covertly monitoring funds that might be linked to terrorist groups.
In a few quick brushstrokes, this opening stretch deftly establishes Ryan as a principled, well-rounded and decidedly bipartisan hero, an ideal protagonist for a new era of global, technological and financial unease. Formidably brainy and respectably brawny, Ryan is a slick operator who secretly stands apart from the soulless machinery of American capitalism, as well as an unapologetic patriot who is nonetheless principled enough to disdain the CIA’s waterboarding and rendition programs. He’s a bundle of raw talent and nerves, promising but untested, and Pine — shedding not only his Starfleet uniform but also any trace of Capt. Kirk’s cockiness — humanizes Ryan effortlessly, whether he’s figuring out how to keep the truth about his real job from Cathy or racking up his first kill.
That fateful moment occurs mere moments after Ryan lands in Moscow to investigate suspicious trading activity at a bank run by the powerful oligarch Viktor Cherevin (Branagh, in a delectable turn). Greeted by an assassin practically upon arrival, Ryan barely has time to think before he reacts, and Pine vividly registers the panic and terror of a man who, however skilled and well trained he may be, still can’t believe the danger he’s gotten himself into. The violent, visceral hand-to-hand combat that follows yields the film’s strongest, most affecting moment, contrasting Ryan’s horror at his own ruthlessness with the CIA’s coolly professional indifference as it calmly swoops in to clean up the damage.
From there, the yarn enters tasty if not especially twisty territory as Cherevin, having skillfully averted an audit by Ryan’s firm, enacts a battle of wits with the young agent over a fancy dinner — one where Cathy, having arrived in Moscow determined to figure out what her boyfriend is really up to, plays an unexpectedly crucial role. Branagh the director has fun with the usual heist-movie conventions, turning a relatively simple feat of burglary and data theft into a briskly edited setpiece that thrums along nicely, if derivatively, to the rhythms of Patrick Doyle’s score. Branagh the actor has even more fun with the role of Cherevin, an intellectual and a sybarite whose roving eye (and later, his sadistic streak) finds an immediate target in Cathy. Watching these two British actors flirt and parry over a glass of wine, Branagh’s thick Russian accent crudely caressing Knightley’s flat American one, is among the film’s more distinctive pleasures.
There isn’t a bad performance in the picture; Knightley brings a steely but sympathetic edge to Cathy, embracing the new element of danger in her relationship with Ryan (to his chagrin), and Costner is especially fine as the rumpled, jaded agency mentor whose years of field experience come through when it counts. But “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” flattens out considerably upon its return to U.S. soil, running out of steam right around the point where Cherevin’s dastardly plot to destroy America is finally revealed, and the beat-the-clock, save-the-day endgame feels disappointingly pro forma. Least persuasive of all is the way in which Ryan miraculously figures out every last detail, in a muddle of frenzied exposition that no smashed-up cars or flickering laptop screens can clarify.
Even before that point, it’s clear that Branagh is essentially riffing, in undistinguished but not unenjoyable journeyman fashion, on a series of familiar espionage-thriller templates. There’s a bit of James Bond in this world of outre villainy and cosmopolitan intrigue, unfolding in a thoroughly modern Moscow (represented by U.K. locations and a few Kremlin exterior shots). But there’s also a measure of Jason Bourne here — not only in the rough-and-tumble fight choreography and camerawork, but also in our sense of Ryan as a man still trying to figure out who he is and what he will become. He may well hope for a better, more inspired use of his time in the future, but in the meantime, it’s good to have him back.