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In Movies & TV Reviews

Chris Pine stars in "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," now playing.

Generic "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" is a failed mission

Generally speaking, it's not a good sign when the trailer for a movie is more intriguing than the final product. Case in point: "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit." The ads tease an action espionage feature in which any of our newbie CIA agent's close ones could be working for the bad guys (et tu, Crash Davis?). The top of the poster even warns: "Trust no one." Yeah, it's not exactly breaking new ground, but that's a decent foundation for a tense, twisty spy thriller.

Unfortunately, besides a brief spat of lone American abroad paranoia, that movie never shows up in "Shadow Recruit." Instead, the Jack Ryan reboot is just as bland and generic as its title.

Seeing as everything is an origin story these days, "Jack Ryan Into Darkness" introduces our hero (Chris Pine) in his college days abroad in London. He wakes up from his nap to see the events of 9/11 unfolding on screen. Odd to think that there was a time after Sept. 11 when Hollywood was concerned that audiences wouldn't want to watch action movies with explosions. Now we open blockbuster hopefuls with the footage and memories.

Cut to Ryan many years later, a veteran of the Iraq War sidelined from combat after his helicopter was shot down. However, an intrigued CIA higher-up (Kevin Costner) sees potential in his economic smarts and spunky boy scout vigor. He (shadow) recruits him to help spy inside big companies and detect patterns that hint at possible financial – or terrorist – scheming.

As it just so happens, there is treachery afoot. Tedious, uninteresting finance jargon-filled treachery involving an oil pipeline, dollar inflation and evil Russians (because this is based on the late Tom Clancy's character, and in Clancy's universe, the Cold War has just been in the middle of a 24-year halftime). It's all leading up to a terrorist attack, orchestrated by Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, taking up directing duties as well), and only Jack Ryan can stop him.

There's some enjoyment to be had in a stripped-down spy story, but "Jack Ryan: Ghost Protocol" is straightforward to a fault. Co-writers Adam Cozad and David Koepp unfortunately find little interesting for anyone to do or say in Ryan's maiden adventure. You keep expecting the plot to zig or zag, but it does neither. The screenplay just sticks to its very rote, excitement-free proceedings. Find evil Russian guy. Infiltrate evil Russian guy. Stop evil Russian guy. Cue credits.

The only real complication is Jack Ryan's nurse girlfriend Cathy (Keira Knightley – not exactly an easy, light performer – looks awfully pained and uncomfortable in a fairly thankless doting damsel role), whose suspicions about Jack's extracurricular activities end up dropping her right in the middle of the mission. It's nice for the plot to try to drop a glitch in the system, but it's nothing more than the typical cliché "personal life meets private life" subplot.

It's not a particularly well written variation on it either. Why, when Cathy follows Jack to Russia and finds his gun, does she ask if he's having an affair? Why is she so relieved about him revealing he's in the CIA, which would still be a lie he's been selling for years?

There are plenty of other questions to be had. In the end, the story's simplicity only ends up revealing how dumb much of "Jack Ryan: A Game of Shadows" truly is. The big mission in the middle of the movie, while featuring a bit of nifty spy sneakery, logically comes apart after thinking about it for a couple of seconds. Why is the CIA so seemingly undermanned that Ryan has to suspiciously bail on a dinner with Cherevin to sneak into his office? Why is the CIA's safe house so embarrassingly easy to find? Why does everyone – bad guys and good guys – seem so bad at their jobs?

As director, Branagh seems out of his element. And he is. Most of his work as director involves Shakespearean and other stage adaptations. Even "Thor," the only other action movie on his resume, had some juicy Shakespearean rival brother drama for him to play with.

Here, there's nothing much of interest in the screenplay, and he's a lukewarm action director at best. The canted angles are thankfully gone from "Thor," but they're replaced merely by unremarkable "Bourne"-esque handheld techniques. There's mild tension to be found in some of the chases, but nothing audiences haven't seen in the dozen other espionage movies that come out each year.

That just leaves us with the titular Mr. Ryan. Tom Clancy's character hasn't graced the screen since 2002's "The Sum of All Fears," where he was played by Ben Affleck (before it was okay to like Ben Affleck). Pine actually has more charisma than Affleck – see the far more successful "Star Trek" reboot for evidence of that – but you wouldn't know it here. He's saddled into a boring character whose only traits are being noble and very capable.

Jack is still a tad hurt from the helicopter crash, but the script pretty much forgets that once the action gets going. He's also new to the gig, but besides some shaky jitters and long looks at a killed assailant, it just adds more bland weightiness to a movie that's desperate for more energy and excitement. Other than during a diverting mid-film car chase, the mission never feels at risk.

If the goal of a reboot is to freshen up a character for the audience and inspire enthusiasm, "Jack Reacher: Shadow Recruit" falls well short. There's nothing fresh about this new vision. Instead, it feels stale, as though the movie has been sitting out for a month gathering mold (which, considering it was supposed to originally come out on Christmas, I guess it has).

He's just another generic character stuck in an equally generic spy movie, and I can't imagine anyone coming out of the theater saying "I want more of that guy." In fact, I doubt anyone would remember his name at all if it wasn't in the title. Wait, what's the title again?

Theaters and showtimes for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit Rating:


devidia | Jan. 20, 2014 at 3:30 p.m. (report)

That title is "Jack Thatcher: Vampire Hunter".

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