Movie Review: “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” – Don’t Volunteer

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By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

If you had never ever seen an action/spy/thriller, then it’s quite possible director Kenneth Branagh’s “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” based on characters created by Tom Clancy, would wow you…at least somewhat. However, if you are among the other several hundred million of us moviegoers who have been force-fed this formula for decades, you will recognize its long, white beard.

The familiar chestnut is now the cinematic equivalent of dad’s threadbare living room chair…out of fashion but durable and cozily unsurprising. The basic genre recipe, which alters little with time, maintains a modicum of entertaining credibility because it pretty much satisfies our general impression, both paranoid and naive, of things geopolitical.

Here, again, the American Empire is at grave risk, this time from a deceitfully planned one-two punch being engineered by the former Soviet Union. Gee, just when you thought these guys might truly become our friends. To paraphrase a pundit offering background to the hero who will try to save us from the Russian Bear this go-round, “They’re still ideologues, but the ideology is now money.” So much for pithy enlightenment.

Well, good thing we Americans are still growing people like Jack Ryan to fight the bad men who would destroy our way of life…the jealous cads. Selfless, smart, brave, tough and handsome enough to draw the heart-throbbing contingent into the theater, Chris Pine’s title character drops out of his Ph.D. program at the London School of Economics to join the Marines after 9/11. His resume works toward his destiny.

Distinguishing himself but injured, whilst in rehab at Walter Reed he captures the eye of Navy Commander Thomas Harper, who’s really a C.I.A. operative just champing at the bit to mentor Jack. ‘Go back, finish your doctorate and then we’ll plant you in Wall Street to monitor potential terrorist threats,’ urges the father figure.

‘O.K.,’ agrees the patriotic young man.

The years pass, during which time Jack forms a live-in relationship with Keira Knightley’s Dr. Cathy Muller, the former medical student who had championed his recovery. Naturally, she can’t know Jack is in the C.I.A. This makes for a sticky wicket any time something seems askew to the good doctor. Of course she never guesses it’s the spy business that has him preoccupied, but rather, suspects that he’s cheating on her.

Hence, matters are certain to get really complicated when Jack, scrutinizing stuff on his firm’s computer, finds evidence among the international monetary comings and goings that something very detrimental to the U.S. economy is in the pipeline. He tells Harper, who immediately orders him to Russia to take a dangerously closer look at the books. Jack reminds that he’s just an analyst. Not anymore, instructs Harper, yeomanly portrayed by Kevin Costner.

So the stage is set for a standard variation on the ordinary man tossed into extraordinary circumstances. Our sensibilities are pleased that Jack is but a citizen soldier when in fact every facet of his life has been a preparation for this mission. And it’s a good thing, too, because our man is hardly off the plane in Moscow when it becomes obvious the “audit” is not very welcome by his company’s Russian affiliate.

The fancy finances are being orchestrated in Kremlin Town by nasty, cynical and disingenuous Viktor Cherevin. Played by Kenneth Branagh, the noted Shakespearean who also directs this potboiler attests that the folks behind the former Iron Curtain make for enemies far more intriguing than the Third World variety.

Now, if you hark back a few graphs you’ll remember that Jack’s gal doesn’t completely trust him despite his all-American boy persona. So it only figures that she gets a few days leave from the hospital and follows him to Mother Russia. While absurd, this jealous fly in the ointment facilitates that all important, tension filled, cat and mouse dinner scene necessary to all clichéd spy movies.

You know the routine. The hero makes like he’s drunk and says some derogatory things about his lady fair. Too vain to realize it’s a diversion allowing Jack to excuse himself and hunt the monetary Holy Grail, Viktor seizes the opportunity to prove that, while he would torture Cathy in a second, he must defend her against another man’s mistreatment.

Thusly the banalities pile high, accompanied by a time bomb ticking, “Mission Impossible”-like score. Oh, didn’t I tell you? Just in case we aren’t entirely decimated by the famine and destitution caused by their fiscal malevolence, they’ve got a real, real big Molotov cocktail primed to explode somewhere in New York. Gotta find it! Gotta find it!

In other words, expect the usual implausibilities. All of which isn’t nearly as farfetched as my theory that the title, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” is really secret agent code embedded in Groundhog Day terminology… shadow meaning if you see this film you’re in for 105 more minutes of mediocre, cloak-and-dagger same-old, same-old.

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” rated PG-13, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Kenneth Branagh and stars Chris Pine, Keira Knightley and Kenneth Branagh. Running time: 105 minutes

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