Kenneth Branagh | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Russia / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13
Kenneth Branagh, who once used to direct films based on Shakespeare and opera and that kind of thing, seems to have carved himself a place as a jobbing blockbuster director so far this decade: it started with a spot in Marvel’s then-burgeoning universe, adapting Thor; saw arguably its greatest success with the live-action remake of Disney’s Cinderella; and he’s now working on an adaptation of young adult action-adventure Artemis Fowl — all released by Walt Disney Pictures, incidentally.
In amongst those, he helmed this: a second attempt (after 2002’s The Sum of All Fears) to relaunch (after a sort–of–trilogy in the early ’90s) Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst-cum-spy (the titular Mr Ryan, obviously) as a Bond/Bourne-rivaling action-thriller franchise. It didn’t work. (Next try: make it a TV series for Amazon.) While I can’t pretend to be shedding any tears over the wasted opportunity of not getting another spy franchise, that’s not for lack of enjoyment: demonstrating perhaps even more versatility than with his comic book adaptation (which was kinda Shakespearean, really) or his Disney fairytale (which was a grandiose period drama, really), here Branagh managed to craft a very creditable action-thriller — with emphasis on the latter, an uncommon choice these days. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t catch on.
Rather than going back to Clancy’s novels, Shadow Recruit chooses to relocate Ryan to the present day, and takes its inspiration from a 2007 Black List screenplay called Dubai. Dubai is, of course, a notoriously pricey Middle Eastern city, and therefore we naturally assume rich in oil. Shadow Recruit’s plot begins with the US refusing to veto a pipeline that will damage Russian oil interests — somehow, I suspect there wasn’t too much re-writing required here. Anyway, following this decision, Afghanistan veteran turned undercover CIA financial analyst Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) uncovers a plot to crash the value of the dollar, which will lead to a new Great Depression. Dispatched to Moscow to investigate, he comes up against oligarch Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), the architect of the plan, which will be instigated by a massive terrorist attack on US soil. Unless Ryan can stop him, of course — with the help of his handler (Kevin Costner), and his fiancée Cathy (Keira Knightley), who’s followed him to Russia because she thinks he’s having an affair. I mean, he was sneaking around a lot…
As I said, the film wasn’t a success, either critically or commercially — despite casting a young, theoretically popular lead in Chris Pine, it didn’t attract the young audience needed to produce blockbuster numbers these days. I guess playing the “thriller” rather than “action” card didn’t pay off, so maybe a TV series is a smarter move after all? I guess we’ll see. Anyway, I think the reaction has been unduly harsh, because Shadow Recruit is very effective at what it sets out to do, and is, in my view, easily the most entertaining Jack Ryan movie since at least the first, The Hunt for Red October. Perhaps that’s damning with faint praise: I was disappointed by both Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger when I finally watched them in 2014, and I described Sum of All Fears as “an adequately entertaining two hours. Otherwise, it’s nothing special.”
Shadow Recruit probably isn’t anything special either, mind. Branagh manages to mount a few excellent sequences, including a very tense dinner / infiltration combo in the middle of the film, where Cathy has to keep Cherevin occupied while Ryan nips over the road and breaks into the oligarch’s office, which develops into a solid car chase. The dynamic is also a little different to the action-thriller norm. Ryan has skills leftover from his military days, but he’s not a one-man army like Bond or Bourne — he needs help both on the ground and from tech guys behind the scenes, who play a vital role in… well, I was going to say “the climax”, but it’s “the bit just before the climax”. The climax is a chase around New York, because of course you have to end with a chase.
This was meant to be a defence of Shadow Recruit and I feel like I’m doing a poor job. Thing is, it’s not up to the quality of the much-mentioned Two Bs when they’re at their best, but its relatively plot-and-character-orientated style distinguishes it from those franchises’ regular MOs. Plus Branagh brings a greater cinematic quality than you’ll find in, say, that Spooks movie, meaning Shadow Recruit straddles the divide between TV-level spying and big-screen action in a way that TV spin-off wanted to but couldn’t really manage. Perhaps the character really will work better in a big-budget TV series, then?