After a 12-year absence, Jack Ryan, Tom Clancy's popular CIA analyst hero, returns to the big screen in Kenneth Branagh's "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit." Paramount Pictures' latest attempt to reboot the series of films that began back in 1990 with John McTiernan's "The Hunt For the Red October," this new film recasts Ryan a young man early in his career. While the film's story is about as by-the-numbers as you can get, Branagh's fine direction and a game cast, led by Chris Pine, helps keep things mindlessly entertaining.
A speedy introduction traces Jack Ryan's path from economics grad student in London to military hero following his decision to enlist after the events of September 11, 2001. Injured on a mission, he's honorably discharged, and while being nursed back to health with the help of a pretty medical student named Cathy (Keira Knightley), he's approached by William Harper (Kevin Costner) about possible employment with the Central Intelligence Agency. The film then jumps forward some years to find Ryan, now an analyst for the CIA, assigned to an undercover position on Wall Street in order to keep an eye on financial dealings that might be linked to terrorist funding. It's not long before he does indeed uncover some shady business that leads back to a Russian firm run by Viktor Cherevin (played by Branagh himself). The CIA flies Ryan out to Moscow in order to investigate Cherevin further, but when his driver promptly attempts to kill him, signs point to a sinister plot. Cue the globetrotting spy escapades. Things become further complicated when Cathy, who has been kept in the dark about her boyfriend's real career, becomes suspicious when she realizes he's keeping secrets from her and decides to check up on him in Moscow.
Though the specifics of Cherevin's plan rapidly become impenetrable, Branagh keeps things speeding along fast enough that it doesn't really matter. He's a competent director of action, and there's a nicely staged hotel-room attack that's absolutely thrilling, though deeply indebted to the type of messy, quick-cut fight sequences popularized by the "Bourne" movies. The script by Adam Cozad and David Koepp is thin, but sprinkles in just enough character details (that introduction is a wonder of economical storytelling) that it's not hard to become invested in our hero's fate. It all holds together fairly well, at least until it reaches the third act and the film resorts to standard action movie clichés. Ryan evolves from scared newbie agent to indestructible man of action far too quickly, and by the time he's racing against the obligatory ticking time bomb and singlehandedly chasing down bad guys on his motorcycle, it's hard to not roll your eyes. Thankfully there's still a fair amount of fun to be had with all the trappings of the spy genre, complete with goofy code names and phrases like "the snowball is rolling" whispered through walkie-talkies.
The fourth actor to play this character, Pine capably fills the shoes of those who came before (Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck, respectively). He makes for an appealing lead, capably conveying the character's balance of brain and brawn, and toning back the cockiness he brings to Captain Kirk in the "Star Trek" films in order to portray a man who is over his head in the world of cloak-and-dagger espionage. Keira Knightley gets slightly more to do than the standard girlfriend role (but only slightly). She's a likeable screen presence despite being saddled with "when are we going to get married?" dialogue and a rather spotty American accent. Costner turns in fine work in the veteran agent role, and Branagh makes for an appropriately menacing heavy, even with an accent that's perilously close to "moose and squirrel" territory.