The character of Jack Ryan has had a rough ride when it comes to actually creating an image for film audiences to latch on to. That is because over the course of the five films now (The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear & Present Danger, The Sum of All Fears and now Shadow Recruit), the character has been played by a cadre of different actors each time out with the sole exception of Harrison Ford who had the distinct honor to be the only actor to ever reprise the role for a second time. Unlike Jason Bourne or heck, even James Bond, Jack Ryan has become more of an enigma than an actual character when it comes to putting a face to the name.
In Hunt, Ryan was a young father with a wife and two young children. In both Patriot and Danger, Ryan was Retired from the CIA with a wife and two older children. In Fears, Ryan was a single man with a girlfriend. Now, we actually get to see him meet his soon to be wife (played by Keira Knightley) and how he was recruited into the CIA. This bouncing around has made this franchise almost appear as sort of a mess where continuity is concerned, especially with many recurring characters being played by different actors each time as well (with the sole exception of James Earl Jones who played Jim Greer in the first three outings).
The saving grace and the thing that has always kept us both interested and coming back though was the spy and espionage world that Ryan existed in created by the late great Tom Clancy. Each film has always been based off Clancy's extremely popular (and influential) novels which all use the character of Jack Ryan more as a linchpin to link all the conspiracies together. Ryan was his Indiana Jones, this regular guy for all intents and purposes who is always thrown head first into larger than life situations.
This new film, Shadow Recruit, has the dubious honor of being not only the first Jack Ryan film to NOT be based off of a Clancy novel, but also the first time an actor (Chris Pine this time) was chosen for the role without a thumbs up or down for the casting choice by Clancy himself. While Alec Baldwin was Clancy's favorite actor to take on the part, he thought Ford was too old and Affleck was more or less an adequate person for the role, Chris Pine feels like the first actor since Baldwin to come closest to embodying what Clancy had envisioned as the perfect onscreen Ryan.
Pine won audiences over by first taking a well established personality such as James Kirk and not only paying homage to the legacy of the character, but he did it with a keen sense of style and wit. That very same boyish charm he showed there along with his more than capable action oriented side pays off in spades as the reluctant Dr. Jack Ryan. He has that every guy vibe that makes you believe he feels out of his element when engaged in a one on one brawl with a trained assassin, but is still believable when the stakes are raised and he must swing into action to save the world from some form of global terrorism.
Part of this success also comes from how quickly and neatly director Kenneth Branagh (who also serves as the film's main villain) gives us the lowdown on how Ryan forges a path towards his inevitable future. One of the few neat touches is that we actually get to see the helicopter crash and Ryan's subsequent rehabilitation when trying to walk again that fans of The Hunt for Red October might remember was brought up during a moment when Ryan's reputation is brought into question. That attention to detail, while likely lost on all but the most hardcore film geeks, is a good indication that despite this not being based on a Clancy novel, the writers most definitely did their homework.
However, it must be said that the lack of Clancy's personal touch on the material is not just noticeable, but almost detrimental to the film. Clancy didn't get all of his accolades and all of his commendations from our government and military leaders just because he was a nice guy, he knew how to create political intrigue like no other and the few films that have been made, while almost wildly different from a creative perspective, all had a unique and scarily realistic side to the material that made you believe, if not just for a second, that this could actually happen and if it did, it would likely go down the way he wrote it.
Shadow Recruit's storyline and plot by comparison to just the previous four films themselves is just barely on par and almost entirely derivative of each of them. Once again the Russians are the bad guys, they want to hurt America somehow, Ryan is pulled into the action almost immediately and becomes the hero who saves the day by both crunching numbers and by doing a little dirty work. While all that is good and fine, the little details such as the behind the scenes of how each side works to out maneuver the other or any sort of political angles at all is just not there.
Jack Ryan does from time to time resolve issues with brute force when needed, but he is at his best and most interesting when he is able to save the say by doing what his job description says, providing intelligence. Usually it is by playing both sides to make sure we don't go to war or by sneaking aboard a nuclear submarine to negotiate with a supposedly crazy Russian commander, but he finds a way to save the day without firing a gun if necessary.
In Shadow Recruit he starts out down that path but very quickly he is turned into a full on field agent in lieu of giving him an actual trained operative to work with as in previous films and throws him into the furnace. By the end of the film it is difficult to determine if Chris Pine is playing Jack Ryan or is just another Ethan Hunt or Jason Bourne wannabe. That fine balance that Clancy's novels brought to the equation is sadly missing here making the film a fun action flick, but it just doesn't compare to how intricate and much more satisfying it is to see Ryan save the day by telling both the U.S. and Russian leaders to shut the hell up and listen to the facts before they push those buttons of death.
Now, just to clear the air here for a second, all of that is not to say that Shadow Recruit is a bad or even mediocre film. It fits the bill nicely if you are looking for a quick popcorn flick to get your kicks out of and forget it the next day. When the next Jack Ryan film comes around (who knows when, this one took nearly a decade to come out), it needs to be less action/adventure and more spy/espionage if it wants to retain that special balance that Tom Clancy created within his novels. Without that, these films will be nearly indistinguishable from every other cookie cutter political thriller, which would just be a shame.
Chris Pine is a perfect fit for the character of Jack Ryan. It's just too bad the film he is stuck in isn't nearly as interesting or intriguing as its predecessors. Hopefully next time the filmmakers will stick to the novels and cease trying to mimic what Clancy did. If there is one thing this film does prove, its that when Tom Clancy passed away, we truly did lose a great voice in the literary world that will never be replaced.