The spy thriller Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit begins where all great espionage tales kick off — the London School of Economics.
Kenneth Branagh's exploration of the Tom Clancy character is an origin story of sorts, detailing how economics student Jack Ryan traded spreadsheets for skulking. After 9/11, Ryan (Chris Pine) joins the Marines, is injured in Afghanistan and later gets recruited by a CIA dude (Kevin Costner) to work undercover at a Wall Street financial firm. Disregard earlier film incarnations in which Ryan worked during the 1980s and '90s in other capacities — what we need now is a strapping young man who wrote "Liquidity in Post-Soviet Markets."
Because the Russians hate us again, and want to wipe out the U.S. with a one-two punch of high-tech financial collapse and old-school explosions. (For us old Cold Warriors, this enmity is like slipping into a comfy old shoe.) The Russian plot is spearheaded by Viktor Cherevin (Branagh), a solid mass of oligarch, political fixer and dark-arts master, who we meet in his baroque sitting room, while listening to opera and savagely beating his male nurse.
Alas, if only the American heroes were so amusing, but our CIA guys deliver standard super-competent but rather plodding performances. That sums up much of the film, which hits many of the spy-thriller beats — a car chase or two, frantic downloading, an imperiled female, a bit of clever misdirection — but never really ignites into something kicky.
The dialogue is perfunctory, and some of the tradecraft is downright laughable. As in all pulpy fantasies, desk jockey Ryan slips smoothly into action man, as if he'd been reading Tom Clancy novels his whole life and just dreaming of the day he'd effortlessly turn a bidet into a deadly weapon. Pine, who reads as "Nice Guy, Never Late to Dinner," lacks the edge to make Ryan's supposedly awkward transformation believable or interesting.
There's lots of location shooting in Moscow, which gets to show off its slick, post-Soviet liquidity. Stateside, Shadow Recruit gives us a demonstration of how awesome our government's massive database of phone records and social media is — it takes just seconds to locate a Russian sleeper agent and his bombing target.
Hoary Russian villains aside, Shadow Recruit is another comforting fantasy about preventing another 9/11. In reality, we can probably count on unicorns as much as the ridiculously efficient technological and human resources marshaled here. And despite our global concerns and high-tech nightmares, the final battle between the American Way and the Bad Guys of the Week is resolved with a fist fight.