- - Thursday, January 16, 2014

It’s a good time for a reboot of the Jack Ryan franchise. Spies are hot properties in the popular mind, from the mercurial Carrie Mathison on “Homeland,” to the family of Cold War era Soviet sleepers in “The Americans.”

Director Kenneth Branagh is faithful to the spirit of the Tom Clancy universe. This isn’t a “Bourne”-style reboot, refashioning characters as disaffected and paranoid outcasts of a corrupt intelligence bureaucracy. In “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” everyone is as they appear. The intelligence operatives are brave patriots, and the villains (here a shadowy cabal of Russian oligarchs) are sinister, and heavy breathers to boot.

On the positive side, the lack of too many plot complications and reversals makes “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” pleasingly spare for a spy thriller. But the story plays out predictably, without much of the uncertainty that makes well done espionage fiction such a pleasure. Mr. Branagh, better known for his Shakespeare productions than his big budget action movies, excels in a few tense ticking-clock set pieces. But the screenplay by Adam Cozad and David Koepp repeatedly strains against its own logic to keep Ryan at the center of the action.

Though the role has been famously played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck, there’s no iconic “Jack Ryan” to loom over this remake. Actor Chris Pine, who played Captain Kirk in the two recent “Star Trek” movies, isn’t exactly shy about reimagining old characters. Here, he plays Ryan as a strait-laced, patriotic economics student who enlists in the Marines after watching the Sept. 11 attacks from London. After a near-crippling injury in a helicopter crash over Afghanistan, his learns to walk again under the tutelage of med student Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley). His academic work has caught the attention of CIA operative Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who recruits him into the agency as an analyst.

Flash forward about 10 years, and Ryan is working as a compliance officer in a Wall Street bank, as cover for his work collecting information on the shadowy world of terrorist financing. He stumbles onto a Russian plan to break the U.S. economy with a one-two punch of financial and physical assault, and is sent overseas as an operational agent to thwart the attack.

In addition to directing, Mr. Branagh plays Russian oligarch Viktor Cherevin, the closest the movie gets to offering a three-dimensional character. Cherevin is vain and intoxicated by his country’s new wealth, but also humiliated by its diminishing relevance in world affairs. Mr. Branagh’s performance, careening between sadism and sorrow, is a little too elevated for the movie, and Mr. Pine especially seems a bit out of his depth at times.

But the real reason why “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” won’t wind up as a perennial cable TV favorite, like “The Hunt for Red October,” is that the script doesn’t waste time with the details of espionage. At one point, Ryan is on the phone with a central office handler and, breaking with all protocol, asks for the actual address of a rendezvous because he can’t remember the code. His handler speaks soothingly too him as if to a child, gives him the address and tells him to remember his tradecraft. That was something Clancy tried to take seriously in his books, and it’s a shame it gets short shrift here.


TITLE: “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”

CREDITS: Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Adam Cozad and David Koepp. Based on characters by Tom Clancy.

RATING: PG-13 for language and violence

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes


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