Introduction: I was attracted to this film solely due to the presence of Chris Pine, of whose acting work I’m starting to dive into. Plus, I enjoy a good action/thriller provided its story isn’t so redundant that I have the whole plot figured out before the end. While this movie was (I believe) supposed to christen a new franchise that never materialized, it holds its own though it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before. Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.
The Story: [from Rotten Tomatoes]: Based on the character created by bestselling author Tom Clancy, Jack Ryan is a global action thriller set in the present day. This original story follow a young Jack (Chris Pine) as he uncovers a financial terrorist plot. The story follows him from 9/11, through his tour of duty in Afghanistan, which scarred him forever, and into his early days in the Financial Intelligence Unit of the modern CIA where he becomes an analyst, under the guardianship of his handler, Harper (Kevin Costner). When Ryan believes he’s uncovered a Russian plot to collapse the United States economy, he goes from being an analyst to becoming a spy and must fight to save his own life and those of countless others, while also trying to protect the thing that’s more important to him than anything, his relationship with his fiancée Cathy (Keira Knightley)
My Take: Based on my understanding, Jack Ryan was originally a literary character created by author Tom Clancy; however, that’s as far as my knowledge goes. Therefore, my judgment of this film is based solely on the movie itself and nothing else. To its credit, the film stands on its own as its story is self-contained, meaning it doesn’t require outside knowledge of any particular characters, events, or setting in order for it to make sense. How Clancy fans will perceive or enjoy this movie, I can’t say; but, for me, it was mostly entertaining.
For the sake of comparison, Shadow Recruit is a bit like a second-rate Bourne film minus the thorny moral conundrums the lead character in the latter faces. Instead, what we’re presented with here is a typical international intrigue thriller that holds its own but brings nothing new to its genre. In reality, this movie reminded me of a really good “24” episode – not a great episode, not a weak episode, but a good, solid episode. I loved “24” back in the day, so this is a compliment! However, it does go to show how generic Shadow Recruit is at its core. That being said, the story’s grounding in the topic of real-world terrorism was an appropriate approach and enabled it to feel realistic, albeit keep in mind that, as a thriller, threats are always amplified for the sake of drama and dramatic tension. To its credit, Shadow Recruit never turns preachy in terms of its politics but keeps its focus on the titular hero, who is a relatable, likeable, everyman character finding himself in extraordinary (and extraordinarily dangerous) circumstances.
That brings me to the truly redeeming aspect of this movie: Chris Pine’s performance. Originally released in 2014, this movie comes on the heels of Pine’s most visible role at the time as the young Captain Kirk in two Star Trek reboots (Star Trek  and Star Trek Into Darkness ). I can see what he was trying to do with a role like this, seeking to branch out and explore other genres, and I give kudos to that. However, to be honest, Chris Pine is a better actor than what this role offered to him.
Years later, Pine actually apologized for this movie as he didn’t feel it was a good start to a new franchise nor did justice to the character of Jack Ryan. But I respectfully disagree as it’s not Pine’s fault. In reality…
In truth, Pine’s tackling of this performance reminded me a lot of how Matt Damon handled the role of Max in Elysium where his performance outshone a rather generic, average movie. Because neither movie allowed their male leads to branch out, they seemed confined, unable to dig as deeply into their respective characters as you can tell they wanted to. One thing that strikes me about Pine as an actor is that he always injects genuine, organic emotion into his characters. Anytime he’s on screen, it never feels like he’s phoning it in or reciting lines just to collect a paycheck. He makes his characters seem like they could actually exist: no matter the genre, there’s always a part of Pine’s delivery that makes his characters feel grounded and relatable, much like a real person. For me, that’s the mark of a good actor: if you can make me believe the character you’re playing could be real, then you’ve done your job as an actor. Pine certainly tries to do his job here but the script, unfortunately, holds him back.
By way of (a weird) example, it’s like if you hired interior designer David Bromstad from HGTV’s Color Splash to paint your kitchen blue, and he shows up and starts telling you all of the cool ways he could totally renovate the space and spice up your dining room, living room, etc. But you insist that, nope, all you want is for him to paint your kitchen blue. What a waste of a creative talent that would be, and it would be to your detriment.
In the same way, I feel like Chris Pine was itching to dive into his character but the script held him back and kept him confined to delivering the generic performance the movie called for. For instance, in one scene, Ryan laments about taking a life in an act of self-defense, but his CIA handler, Harper (Kevin Costner), essentially tells him to get over it and that he’ll never used to killing people. This was a scene where I felt like Pine was wanting to take it somewhere deeper, but, instead, the script just brushed it aside. There are other moments where I sensed, if he had his way, he would have developed Jack Ryan differently or injected more emotional depth or moral complexity into him. But the script just cuts Pine off. It’s a real shame and I think, had Pine been given more to work with, this could have been a really good movie rather than an average one. In short, this was a classic case of a good actor restrained by a mediocre script: Pine did what he could with it, but it was to the movie’s detriment that it didn’t allow him to do more. [P.S.: If Chris Pine ever wanted to paint my kitchen, he’s more than welcome. ;)]
As far as the other characters are concerned, they’re okay and nothing to write home about (or, in this case, devote much blog space to). I’ve never been a Kevin Costner fan (and if you are, that’s cool) and his role as Harper is fine – not great but fine. He’s the typical older mentor trope you see in these sorts of films, though he spends more time working as an active agent than trying to teach Ryan the ropes, especially seeing as Ryan isn’t a field agent until he’s forced into the role. I think more could have been made of their relationship, making it a stronger mentor/protegee pairing, but, again, the script either couldn’t or wouldn’t accommodate it. Kenneth Branagh plays a Russian villain trope, so here was yet another case of a good actor stuck in a mediocre role (after all, he did play King Henry V and Gilderoy Lockheart!). Lastly, I’m not familiar enough with Keira Knightley’s work to fairly judge her, but out of everyone else here, her part seemed a little phoned in. Cathy’s chemistry with Ryan didn’t entirely feel authentic coming from her and she is eventually reduced to a damsel in distress figure. So, as a whole, the other leads’ performances were fair but ultimately unmemorable.
Story-wise, Shadow Recruit doesn’t touch on any new ground and is a pretty standard post-9/11 thriller spy story. Ryan is brought in by the CIA under one premise but soon finds himself working as an undercover agent (with no training, mind you). He’s smart, adaptable, but, again, isn’t allowed to grapple with deep emotions or ethical questions. Likewise, the trailers misrepresent the final product (though trailers tend to do that in varying degrees). In some ways, it’s a good misrepresentation: the trailer relies heavily on action set pieces but the movie isn’t that chocked full of them and actually shows restraint in that regard, which I liked. On the downside, the surprise you suspect might happen never does, which is a shame because it would have made for a cool plot twist.
To be fair, it’s not as if this movie has a terrible story, but Shadow Recruit sticks with a tried-and-true formula and pulls no punches. That will either bore you or interest you, depending on how well you like its genre. If you love stories akin to “24,” then this will ring familiar to you but probably won’t disappoint. But if you like seeing morally complex characters engage surprising, even shocking, situations, then Shadow Recruit will be found to be lacking though it’s not a time waster to watch. Ultimately, it entertains and I did find myself eager to see what would happen despite there being no big surprises, reveals, or plot twists. Also in its favor, this film relies more on suspense rather than large, loud, action set pieces; so if you’re not a fan of the latter, then you might enjoy this movie for that, too. In the end, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit accomplishes what it probably set out to do – entertain audiences with a suspense-driven thriller complete with appropriate doses of action.
Content Breakdown: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was given a PG-13 rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – Profanity usage is minimal with some PG words and a few harsher PG-13 words, chiefly the sh-word and a single f-word.
Violence – Surprisingly, for an action/thriller, this film sports minimal scenes of actual violence. Instead, for the most part, characters are placed in suspenseful, perilous situations that sometimes involve shootouts (with no or minimal blood), on-foot chases, and car chases. A few characters are stabbed or shot but little to no blood is shown. Another character is shown with bomb-making paraphernalia and there is talk of a terrorist attack being planned on American soil. Also, television news images of the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center are briefly shown. Lastly, one character is involved in a helicopter explosion that leaves the character severely wounded but alive.
Sexual Material – None in terms of sex scenes or nudity. In one scene, Jack is seen in bed, shirtless, with Cathy but nothing occurs between them other than a kiss (though it’s worth noting they’re living together as an unmarried couple). The couple shares other kisses throughout the film but no such interactions lead to anything further. Lastly, it’s implied that one character is a womanizer, but nothing is ever shown to this effect other than he tries to flirt with a lady over dinner by making non-crass small talk.
Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):
Children – Not recommended as this film is geared strictly for older audiences.
Older Children & Teens – Recommended as a relatively clean action/thriller movie but more so for teens rather than anyone under 13 as it’s a safe bet anyone younger (unless they’re fans of Pine thanks to the Trek reboots) would probably not be attracted to this.
Young Adults & Adults – Recommended, especially for fans of the genre in general. While probably nothing here will wow or surprise you, it’s still an entertaining story albeit it’s nothing you haven’t seen before.
Overall, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a decent action/thriller – good, but not terrible or great. I sense it was intended to kick off a Jack Ryan franchise staring Chris Pine that never materialized, but that’s probably for Pine’s benefit as he deserves better roles than what this movie offered him. Without being tied to the franchise, he’s free to pursue better and more challenging material (case in point – Hell or High Water). Again, the fault here lies with the script rather than Pine’s performance but, to the story’s credit, it does have enough thrills to entertain until the end. It simply lacks that extra something special to make it stand out among its peers.