In 2002’s The Sum of All Fears, the tumultuous political and rhetorical aftermath of 9/11 is given cinematic lip service through indirect, though queasily transparent, plot points and dialogue, such as terrorists blowing up a football stadium in Baltimore and a reference to the site as “ground zero.” While it’s possible that the similarities were coincidental and already written into the script prior to the attacks, it’s nevertheless an opportunistic setting for rebooting a younger version of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan hero, played by Ben Affleck, whose heroics culminate in a one-man mission after the bombing, pitting himself against the remaining terrorists. His cautious virility is supposedly the nationalist attraction for audiences in an energized, militaristic post-9/11 milieu; unlike the seasoned Ryan played by Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, whose wife and kids valorize his status as a de-facto, hegemonic patriot par excellence, the younger Ryan still needs to grow a pair—or put a ring on it, which in this cinematic realm amounts to roughly the same thing.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is essentially about both of these quandaries as it pertains to the mythos of becoming masculine in a post-9/11 America. After killing a driver-cum-assassin just over a third of the way through the film, Ryan (Chris Pine) is handed a pistol by mentor Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) and told, “You’re not just an analyst anymore; you’re operational now.” This scene takes place in 2013, but the film opens in 2001, with Ryan attending school in London for his doctorate in economics. A dialogue-free opening scene tracks Ryan as he makes his way to a television set, witnessing a billow of smoke emanating from the Twin Towers. Deciding to abandon his PhD to join the Marines, Ryan is off to Afghanistan, where he’s shot down en route to base, and forced to undergo months of rehabilitation, in part under the supervision of med student Kathy Muller (Keira Knightley), who will soon become his long-time girlfriend. In present day, Cathy, now an MD, is little more than a nag, pestering Ryan about a mysterious movie-ticket stub, a trip to Paris, and suspicions that he may be having an affair. Her sacrifice post-9/11 is null; she remains, even with her doctorate, a woman concerned for her man. Meanwhile, Ryan’s sacrifice imbues him with the power of political violence, which he exercises diligently once he discovers demented financier Viktor Cherevin’s (Kenneth Branagh) scheme to crash the American economy.
Director Kenneth Branagh treats these basic spy-movie elements with a suitable degree of restraint and verve, especially in a harrowing sequence midway through, which leaves Muller distracting Cherevin at a dinner table, while Ryan acquires some key information. Muller plays seductive at first, but shifts to a dry-witted diagnosis of Cherevin’s visibly advanced cirrhosis, causing him to hide his skin. It’s a revealing moment for both Branagh’s canniness as actor and director, placing a small reversal of wittily articulated insult amid what, in other hands, would likely give primary emphasis to the largely soporific, switcheroo narrative. Yet these intriguing moments ultimately make way for Ryan’s third-act ascendance to “operational” manhood, as he actualizes a decade-long pursuit of nationalist pride in the form of fisticuffs with Cherevin and a mysterious Russian agent thought to have been killed.
Branagh’s lighter touches and restrained action sequences are ousted by a reboot syndrome that insists less on revising a canonical character than reinscribing an ethos that’s meant to satiate traditions of masculinity and gender order. Nothing better epitomizes this than a concluding scene, in which Muller’s freshly ringed finger clutches Ryan’s face as he says, “You didn’t pick this life.” She looks at him, solemnly: “But I picked you.” Branagh tracks out, cues the somber, piano soundtrack, and predictably reaffirms Ryan’s emergent, gung-ho sensibilities as the ultimate means to sexual, domestic, and political stability.
Paramount has given studious attention to both image and sound, as there’s scarcely a flaw to be found with either. Colors are balanced and bright in the film’s numerous daytime scenes and have spectacular clarity in wide shots. The sound mix is nuanced and fastidious, capturing rainfall with the same evenness as gunshots. Dialogue is largely clear and suitably mixed in relation to sound effects. An early scene aboard a helicopter especially displays the transfer’s excellence, with the shaky-cam close-ups crystal clear and the dialogue perfectly audible even with the loud, helicopter blades humming in the background.
A commentary by Kenneth Branagh and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura explains the film’s long journey from page to screen and the desire to fuse post-9/11 and Cold War anxieties. Furthermore, they humorously detail shooting a "magic hour" sequence with Chris Pine and how difficult it is to make contemporary movies that stay a step ahead or two of audiences. There’s more of the same with the six minutes of extended and deleted scenes, which were clipped for tonal rather than runtime concerns. Finally, four featurettes mostly pay reverence to the Paramount brand, although there are worthwhile nuggets within; "Jack Ryan: The Smartest Guy in the Room" takes a comprehensive survey of the series, defining Ryan as "a contemporary hero." Curiously, however, several cast and crew refer to the new film as a prequel rather than a reboot, language which does not jibe with post-9/11 opening, time period, or marketing from Paramount. The best of the four is "Old Enemies Return," which features interviews with several university professors about the aftermath of WWII and the ongoing, tumultuous relationship between the United States and Russia, which provides necessary backdrop for viewers needing a history refresher.
Paramount’s Blu-ray has both brawn and brains, but as a reboot, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a largely retrograde mission.