When Jack Ryan (Chris Pine), an economics student turned injured marine, is first called on to join the CIA by stealth handler William Harper (Kevin Costner), he's skeptical. "People don't like you guys these days," the would-be recruit says, going on to list frowned-upon agency tactics like waterboarding. "That's not my unit," Harper tersely replies. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit takes place largely in the present, after showing the 9/11 tragedy during Jack's college days, and racing through the missile attack that nearly killed him in Afghanistan three years later. The film may glaze over certain topical suspicions of America's own government (there's no mention of the NSA; just a clear and present wink), but at least it attempts to address them, standing more as an exploratory, wide-eyed American thriller than yet another action film that simply flaunts American elitism.
It may help a bit that the movie isn't directed by an American, but by Irishman Kenneth Branagh, who also casts himself as chief baddie Viktor Cherevin, a Russian businessman planning to wipe out the U.S. dollar and upend the world economy (he's also dying of cirrhosis, and his introduction sees him beating the snot out an incompetent phlebotomist). Affecting a perfectly eerie and eloquent accent, Branagh makes as much of a dominant impact in front of the camera as he does behind it. An underrated director who also brought panache to Thor, another franchise tent pole, Branagh has a certain wry cheekiness that considerably boosts this potentially middling actioner. For example, while recovering from his war wounds, Jack meets Dr. Cathy Muller (an American-accented Keira Knightley), who goes on to become his girlfriend, and maintains a rapport with him that's ostensibly risible in its superficiality, yet remains endearingly effective. The breeziness with which Cathy accepts Ryan's absences, catches him in lies, and eventually learns the truth would be implausible, or even misogynistic, in another filmmaker's hands. In keeping his actors on his sober-yet-buoyant plane, though, Branagh presents a convincing romance that doesn't stall the film's brisk clip, finally folding Cathy into the action of Jack's sting operation, and getting full, genuine mileage out of her relief that Jack's in the CIA, and not cheating.
Rebooting the Tom Clancy adaptations that formerly starred Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit continually balances poker-faced sarcasm and urgent intellect, getting away with casting Mikhail Baryshnikov as Viktor's formidable superior, and successfully unfurling boatloads of exposition via debriefings and detailed covert chats. Jack's assignment in Russia is prompted by his cover job at a major brokerage firm, where he's assigned to keep watch on possible terrorist funding, then stumbles on Viktor's vile plan (call him the Sly Fox of Wall Street). Once deployed, Jack's caught at the core of a narrative with a shrewdly quickening pace, and one that finds time for riveting sequences in each stage of its progression. When Jack drowns an assassin during a bathroom brawl, it's his first kill, and the conflict of survival and remorse is achingly expressed in Pine's face. When Jack breaks away from a frenemy dinner with Viktor to raid his headquarters, the patient sophistication and European setting recall some of the best moments from Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible (which was also penned by this film's co-writer, David Koepp).
People talk fast, and a lot, in this movie, and as the climax nears, it's hard to tell if the CIA clan sounds more like the savvy cast of Homeland or the self-serious quacks on Criminal Minds. Moreover, as he plays a man with constantly furrowed eyebrows and an ailment befitting a Russian lush, it's tough to decide if Branagh is nostalgically reviving the Slavic villain or milking a stereotype. Ultimately, the tricky mix works in all its see-sawing tonal merits and personality-fueled direction. And thanks also to sleekly staged espionage and car chases of brute believability, this is the rare series starter to leave me anticipating the next installment.