Every once in a while Kenneth Branaugh pops up. This week he has again come to our attention, this time as director of and villain in “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” a prequel to “The Hunt for Red October” and “The Sum of All Fears,” other films featuring the chief spy from Tom Clancy’s novels.
Chris Pine, the current Captain Kirk of the Star Trek series, plays Ryan this time. His love interest is Kiera Knightley, playing Cathy Muller. They meet after he is injured during the war in Afghanistan—she is a medical resident who takes an interest in his rehabilitation.
At about this time, Jack is recruited by Agent Harper (Kevin Costner) to be a CIA analyst, and the movie then skips forward a bit. Jack and Cathy are in New York City where he has a job with an investment bank. He is having trouble gaining access to the accounts of a company his bank owns in partnership with a security-crazy Russian outfit run by Viktor Cherevin.
That’s Branaugh’s part. He has a good character here, a Russian nationalist whose life motivation comes from a desire to punish the West for the 80s and 90s humiliation of his homeland. So the character is a cliche, but the Ulsterman manages to pump some blood into him. In fact, that’s the way it is with this movie: the script was written without much imagination, but some things work in it because actor or director Branaugh has exerted himself.
Jack and Harper go to Moscow to try to figure out what’s going on with those odd accounts. Soon—and inexplicably—Cathy follows along. Perhaps the film’s best sequence comes when Jack is attacked, immediately on his arrival in his luxury hotel suite, by his Ugandan bodyguard. At that moment Harper, who can apparently do such things, declares Jack an active agent.
And then Jack, and even Cathy, immediately become the spies responsible for distracting Cherevin and for sneaking into his office to download important secret computer data from his office mainframe. This is a version of the familiar intercut, two-scene suspense riff that all moviegoers know. A few minutes later there’s a ticking clock sequence associated with a bomb in an Econoline. There are no new ideas in the script. It even revives the threatening meeting in the woods sequence we first saw twenty-five years ago in the Coen brother’s “Miller’s Crossing.”
Besides stale plotting, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” has another on-going problem. They’ve apparently hired Groucho Marx’s make-up artist to do Pine’s and Knightley’s eyebrows. Pine’s sideburns look like rectangles of felt glued to the side of his head. These hairy facial accents are as fascinating as the sight of highway carnage. They distracted me all the way through the movie.
Free of self-consciousness, though, the last hour of the film runs on quickly from event to event, developing momentum if not suspense. One doesn’t have time to ask questions about plausibility that would ruin one’s pleasure in the action.
If only Branaugh had pulled the cameras back a little way from the later fight scene so that we could see who was hitting whom, there wouldn’t be much that most action picture fans would find fault with in the last half hour of the show.
They will love Branaugh’s on-screen performance. Here’s an actor who can add dimension to a routine character without wasting an instant. Cherevin’s eyes go a little distant in his last scene, and that’s all it takes to put the personality across. Or at least that’s all it takes Branaugh.
While Knightley and Pine and Costner aren’t skilled at making new humans from a few lines of script, they do fine here. She has the hardest time of it.
Her accent is excellent, but the script asks her to refuse a marriage proposal, flirt shyly with an oligarch, and jet on a whim to Moscow, and we don’t understand Cathy well enough to know how she comes to do any of this.
But here again, the problem is probably with the script. Branaugh the actor can overcome it. The others pretty much just hang on and let things run. And the ticket-holder? He’ll enjoy the action in this acceptable but not really memorable little spy flic.