Jack Ryan is arguably one of the great literary characters of the late 20th Century and his novelised adventures nearly rival the Bond novels in terms of creating an iconic fictional universe. Unfortunately, he has been less well served by the film adaptations than his British Secret Service counterpart. Ryan is not a womanising, hard drinking man of action who saves the day with swashbuckling derring-do, and he doesn’t live in a glamorous never land of larger-than-life despotic villains. Rather, he is a shrewd and principled ex-soldier, historian and analyst who inhabits a world very like our own, with its murky domestic and international politics and ideological clashes. Yes, he is often reluctantly pressed into the role of the action hero, but he is decidedly not James Bond, which is where film adaptations have always had a bit of trouble.
Alec Baldwin did a fine job in “The Hunt For Red October”, which remains the high water mark for Clancy adaptations, then Harrison Ford nailed it as the older Jack Ryan as reluctant hero in “Patriot Games” and “Clear And Present Danger”. Then they rebooted with Ben Affleck to for 20012002’s “The Sum Of All Fears”. Unfortunately, the USA’s realpolitik had overtaken events in the Clancyverse and although its real world sensibilities had always proved tricky to adapt, it was suddenly extremely uncomfortably so and the franchise shrivelled on the vine.
Flash forward a decade or so and paramount’s got its itchy trigger finger on the reboot gun again. This time, they skew even younger, going for current reboot poster boy Chris Pine and effectively mounting “Ryan Begins”. Everything is brought bang-up-to-date, placing Ryan in college during the September 11th attacks and moving his army career ending injury to the Afghanistan invasion. During his rehabilitation, he meets medical student Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley) and attracts the attention of CIA official Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner). Ten years on, and Ryan is working on Wall Street in a cover job whilst acting as an analyst for the CIA. When he uncovers some troubling business activity by Russian tycoon Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), his Wall Street employers send him to Moscow to investigate. While there, he survives an abrupt assassination attempt and uncovers evidence of a plot to simultaneously carry out a terrorist attack on US soil and carry out a series of financial trades which will devastate the US economy.
Pine is adequate as Ryan, but is the least impressive actor to have played the role to date while Knightley literally adds nothing to the film at all. Costner and Branagh bring some experience and gravitas to the proceedings and I found myself wishing I was watching a spy thriller about the two of them facing off rather than the chaotic scrambling of junior Jack Ryan. Branagh’s direction is as solid as you’d expect but with such a limited scope and canvas, there’s little he could do apart from deliver this pedestrian, by the numbers spy thriller.
Unlike the previous films, this is not an adaptation of any of the novels but is an ‘original’ story cobbled together from newspaper headlines from the past few years. Unfortunately, in jettisoning Clancy’s novels, the makers have also jettisoned the cleverness, veracity and excitement of Clancy’s plots. Put simply, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is pretty boring, and the central threat of large scale currency transactions aimed at weakening the US economy is too remote and nebulous for the audience to care about. The simultaneous Wall Street bombing plan feels tacked on to give the film a sense of urgency the market trading plot is unable to do. During the forced and artificial action-packed climax, I found it hard to care who was doing what or why.
Notably, Tom Clancy died before this film was finished and released and while it might be a touch unfair, it’s hard not to agree with him that this underwhelming reboot wasn’t worth wasting another breath on.