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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
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by Brett Gallman

"The spy who came out of the Cold War."
3 stars

Our last glimpse of Jack Ryan came more than a decade ago in "The Sum of All Fears," a film whose release in the shadow of 9/11 should have dragged Tom Clancy's title hero out of the Cold War by default; however, that film couldn't resist reheating that old conflict as part of a shell game for its War on Terror-era reboot of the franchise, and the result was typical Clancy pulp that happened to seem more grave (indeed, perhaps too grave) due to external circumstances rather than any actual engagement with moving Ryan to a modern milieu. The newly minted "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" is a mulligan of sorts. Another youth movement, it introduces another fresh-faced Ryan to what should be a more ambiguous age; instead, it just sticks him into the same old Russo-American spy games wrapped up in the pretense of current economic anxieties.

"Shadow Recruit" willingly places itself in the specter of 9/11 by opening on that date, at which point Ryan (a sufficiently brash Chris Pine, more believable as super spy than Clancy's everyman) is an economics graduate student with a mop-top. Upon watching the horror unfold on television, he decides to drop out of school and become a marine, a career move that's cut short two years later when his patrol's helicopter is shot down over Afghanistan. Nearly crippled, he spends the next few years recovering at Walter Reed in the care of aspiring doctor Cathy (Keira Knightley) and under the mysterious, watchful gaze of CIA recruiter Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner). Towards the end of Ryan's rehab, Harper pitches a scheme that will send Ryan back to school to finish his degree before the agency covertly implants him as a Wall Street compliance officer.

Ten years later, he's happily in a relationship with Cathy (though she's unwilling to commit to marriage) and drowning in stock market figures. On the eve of a new oil pipeline proposal, Ryan notices some fishy activity related to accounts held by Russian maven Viktor Cheverin (Kenneth Branagh) and deduces that it's a harbinger for a terrorist attack that will trigger a second Great Depression.

Obviously, the setup for "Shadow Recruit" is more than a mouthful, what with its insistence on highlighting the crucial moments of Ryan's formative years (by contrast, his backstory was economically covered by a few lines of dialogue in "The Hunt for Red October"). Showing rather than telling is usually preferable, but Ryan's origins are obligatory bullet points arising out of a current fascination with crossing all of the necessary Ts, so the prequelitis is an empty symptom that rarely colors the rest of the narrative. Even when Ryan suddenly finds himself very operational during a hotel brawl, his inexperience in the field hardly seems to be a factor ("you're a marine, you're trained for this," his handler intones).

But the good news is that the film at least starts to glide a bit once Ryan is shipped off to Moscow, where the film thankfully resists fisticuffs after his rude welcoming at the hands of an assassin. Instead, the film treats viewers to some sumptuous verbal tete-a-tetes between Ryan and Cheverin and some relationship drama when a suspicious Cathy hops on over to Moscow to see what her fiancee is doing on his secretive trip (per CIA rules, she's not aware of his true job).

The latter sounds especially groan-worthy, but, between Branagh amusing himself in the leering, overly-ethnicized Russian heavy role and Costner unexpectedly playing couples' therapist, there's an airy, pulpy vibe that spy thrillers have sometimes been shorn of during the past decade--it's more "True Lies" than a grim n' gritty, Bourne-again take on Clancy. It climaxes with a crisp, gripping data heist, a banal modern thriller staple that works here because the script and director Branagh meticulously arrange the players and efficiently establish the stakes.

And then the movie morphs into fucking "Die Hard With a Vengeance." No, seriously--once Ryan discovers the mechanizations of Cheverin's plot, he races back to the States, where he's forced to chase a madman's bomb through the streets of Manhattan, a rather pedestrian blockbuster capper (complete with Branagh's mimicry of chaotic, quick-cutting action) to what was a quiet, nigh-mature spy thriller. After trading in its fantastic, exotic locales for a grittier, more familiar tableau of sleeper agents and disaster porn, "Shadow Recruit" becomes thuddingly anonymous for a film attempting to revitalize a title character. Ryan's nothing more than a guy who connects some dots before he has to kick some ass like any other modern American cowboy. Yippee ki-yay again, Mother Russia.

This turn speaks to the disconnect at the heart of "Shadow Recruit," another film that reveals Hollywood's propensity for franchises rather than actual films--this isn't so much a finished product so much as it's a thesis with an ellipsis: Jack Ryan's back and...you'll perhaps see more of him once we get this nasty business of reigniting the property out of the way. Or at least the illusion of the property since there's little of the original Clancy to be found here. The first film to be completely scripted without the author's novels as a template, "Shadow Recruit" retains the skeletal remains of the origin story before molding Ryan into a preordained action hero.

Clancy envisioned Jack Ryan as a business-savvy everyman (or at least a Reaganite's skewed vision of an everyman) who happened to be consistently pushed back into action, like a John McClane for daydreaming Neo-cons. Here, he's predestined for Greatness, and the air of Destiny hangs over his early interactions with Harper. This Jack Ryan is never meant to be anything but a blank slate, American's own sleeper agent of sorts that's meant to awaken when the country is threatened and needs saving.
Such an alteration would at least be forgivable if "Shadow Recruit" either stuck to its pulp-tinted guns or actually engaged in its opening supposition: what role does Jack Ryan play in this post-9/11 world? It turns out that he does the same thing he always does, only he barely resembles himself, nor does he run into those typical Jack Ryan roadblocks that force him to convince higher authorities that he's right, damnit.

Previous Ryan films at least bothered to tussle with ideologies. "Shadow Recruit" barely slap fights with them, even as it's tossing some quandaries around the edges: Harper's cryptic conversations hint at the shadowy nature of a job where everyone's hoarding secrets, and Cheverin's revelation about his time fighting in Afghanistan nods askance to America's culpability in that conflict.

But rather than fully tackle that culpability or the malleable nature of the War on Terror, where one man's freedom fighter becomes that same man's terrorist within the span of two decades (indeed, the Afghans that shoot down this Jack Ryan could be the same guys that a Clancy's Jack Ryan may have aided into power), "Shadow Recruit" employs it as window dressing--it's an easily digestible motivation for the mustache-twirling villain, who also confesses to having American grenade fragments still lodged in his hips, the type of deformity that would have been more exaggerated if this were a James Bond film spawned from the Cold War era that "Shadow Recruit" frequently recalls.

Of course, Jack Ryan has often been positioned as the American antidote to Bond, and he once again finds himself in 007's shadow. Where Britain's top spy successfully reinvented himself and found life after the USSR, Jack Ryan is still enduring an identity crisis. Caught between nostalgically echoing its character's Cold War roots and shoving him into The War on Terror, "Shadow Recruit" is a serviceable, well-performed reminder that there's a guy named Jack Ryan out there--but one wonders if he's truly necessary when he's been upstaged by the likes of Jack Bauer for the past decade.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=24316&reviewer=429
originally posted: 01/23/14 15:37:34
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User Comments

2/13/17 morris campbell the only movie i liked in this franchise was patriot games 2 stars
9/07/14 mr.mike Surprisingly old school cold war thriller. 3 stars
6/02/14 keel Rather boring, Pine no Harrison Ford 2 stars
2/15/14 Luke Did Scott Weinberg decide to man up and make a movie himself..what a douche:) 4 stars
1/30/14 Plqttkce You should be a permanent citizen of UK. 2. loans could well be absolute in your case and i 5 stars
1/28/14 Jeff WIlder Solidly entertaining. 3 stars
1/27/14 zpSbZgmEd greg.txt;1;3 4 stars
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