Is "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" a good film? Yeah. Is it the Jack Ryan escapade true fans crave? Likely not. Your affection will depend on how enamored you are of the source material, and how well you enjoy the work of screenwriter David Koepp.
"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" brings us a new (and they’re probably hoping first) take on novelist Tom Clancy's legendary Jack Ryan character, brought to screen thus far by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck (all excellent casting choices). Here we meet Jack at his beginnings, with said beginnings re-worked for immediately post-911 environs. If successful, it’s a fresh start, and in any case, it’s a nice popcorn outing suitable for most any occasion.
This is not to say, by any means, that "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" is milquetoast. With what people are given to work, people do very well.
Under Kenneth Branagh’s expert direction, it carries tense moments that made the person next to me blurt a quiet, “Wow” (two seconds before the character did exactly that), and his sequencing of the action reminds us of the skill we so appreciated in "Thor". He’s also brilliantly menacing as the primary adversary; when he framed a close-up of his own face in controlled fury, I literally thought, “Holy cow, I hope to God I never stare into a face like that my whole life.”
Chris Pine, having co-carried arguably the highest-pressure reboot in cinematic history, knows well the importance of incarnating an existing character faithfully and with deep familiarity, and fulfills his mission here. And Kevin Costner as James Earl Jones v2.0 simply shows up for work as "Thirteen Days" meets "No Way Out", and nails it.
But though based on characters created by Tom Clancy, it doesn’t feel qui-i-te like true Clancy. And therein, as Branagh has uttered a time or two, lies the rub. Unlike, for example, NBC’s "Hannibal" (since I have Ralph Fiennes on the mind today), which spectacularly incarnated beloved characters in utterly unseen situations (given it predates its source material), "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" feels to have played a little fast and loose with the “inspired by” phrase.
The characters themselves have stepped away from their fundamental wiring: Jack steps too easily into the action hero, and Cathy too easily into the delicate damsel. Neither is as personally grounded as called for historically (being younger notwithstanding), and Pine and Knightley lack the chemistry of Ford and Archer (my 2¢: Bryce Dallas Howard would've been glorious).
In the interest of full disclosure, I will say my expectations were very high indeed (well, my hopes anyway). "The Hunt for Red October" ranked in my top ten for well over a decade (still top 100), and when we developed our Top 100 Action films over at We Got This Covered, I snapped up "Patriot Games" and grabbed "Clear and Present Danger" while I was at it. So if you’re not that rabid, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" may work for you.
Additionally, I don’t favor the style of [the very successful] screenwriter David Koepp. With one exception ("The Paper", which I adore to this day), his body of work is a list of titles that by all rights I should love, but somehow don’t. They just don’t reach the definition of compelling for me, but that’s clearly a matter of taste. Take a look at his filmography; if you like it, you’ll be fine here.
"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" runs the risk of being too Clancy for its new audience, and not Clancy enough for its existing one. But in any case, it’s a nice popcorn outing suitable for most any occasion.
Story: Reboot of the Tom Clancy Jack Ryan world of the CIA analyst, in which we meet Jack at his beginnings now in immediate post-911environs.
Starring: Chris Pine, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Running time: 105 minutes
Houston release date: January 17, 2014
Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or your local listings
Screened Jan 15th at the AMC First Colony theater in Sugar Land TX