James Bond’s Placeholder: Chris Pine Does the Heavy Lifting
For a no frills spy thriller, Kenneth Branagh directs a respectable rendering of Tom Clancy’s well-worn Jack Ryan superspy character. Still, Branagh is no action-film director, and it shows. Chase-scenes cut away too quickly for the audience to savor the dogfights on display — as when Jack (Chris Pine) rides a motorcycle at a 120-degree angle against a concrete lane divider in hot pursuit of a bomb-packing terrorist. What should be a heart-in-your-mouth moment gets lost in a throwaway quick-cut. Equally to blame for its kneejerk failings are the film’s screenwriters. Adam Cozad and David Koepp get in over their heads attempting to construct a narrative based on Tom Clancy characters, rather than on a specific novel by the notoriously right-wing author. Every plot point has a mechanical feel to it. Narrative gears frequently grind. Even when the action heats up, it doesn’t always carry over into the scenes that follow.
As the title suggests, the story tells the onset of Jack Ryan’s career as a covert CIA operative. A drawn out yet busy first act introduces Jack as a mathematical whiz kid who also happens to be a fit physical specimen and a willing warrior. Chris Pine proves to be a casting coup. He’s a powerhouse actor along the lines of George Clooney — well nearly. As with his impressive work in the rebooted “Star Trek” franchise, Pine carries a grounded sense of gravitas. He puts a fresh face on the Jack Ryan mantle formerly worn by Alec Baldwin (“The Hunt for Red October”), Harrison Ford (“Patriot Games”), and Ben Affleck (“The Sum of All Fears”). Chris Pine is better than all of those portrayals combined. Pine’s Jack Ryan has the intellectual persuasiveness to balance the boyish twinkle in his eye. There’s a hint of easygoing humor that resonates against the nuance-lacking politicized material at hand.
Ryan falls romantically for his physical-therapy doctor Cathy (Keira Knightley) after a helicopter crash in Afghanistan leaves him barely able to walk. Knightly and Pine don’t share the strongest onscreen chemistry but the pairing is serviceable enough. As Ryan’s secrecy about his day job tests Cathy’s trust, his immersion as a point-of-the-spear spy deepens. Jack’s patriarchal CIA mentor Thomas Harper (played by an adequate Kevin Costner) assigns him a trip to Moscow to head off a Russian plot to crumple the US economy led by banking mastermind Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh). A first-kill sequence inside Jack’s Moscow hotel suite steals liberally from “Casino Royal” — the James Bond picture that established Daniel Craig as the new face of 007. Still, it makes the point that Jack is equipped to handle surprises.
Branagh’s acting duty as Russian baddie Viktor Cherevin allows the classically trained actor to melt scenery with a thick Russian accent that withers those of weak constitutions. Jack Ryan is immune. Branagh’s tightly wound performance is a cool reminder of what actors mean when they talk about creating a character. Viktor is so diabolically evil you can’t help being pulled into Branagh’s slow-burn intensity. One scene in particular — in which Viktor tortures a female hostage with a fluorescent light bulb in the back of a moving van — is delightfully reptilian.
Branagh, the director, shrewdly veils Viktor’s evil persona in a shroud of mystery. The first time we see him, it’s the back of Branagh’s young-seeming head that piques our curiosity. Another layer of intrigue arrives in the form of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s uncredited role as a ruthless Russian mob boss. Between them, Branagh and Baryshnikov create a believably malevolent climate of simmering violence.
“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is little more than a filmic placeholder until the next as-yet-untitled James Bond picture arrives in October of 2015. It may be a pale substitute, but “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” gets the job done nevertheless.
Rated PG-13. 105 mins. (B-) (Three Stars – out of five / no halves)