Jack Ryan’s Roots: Shadow Recruit Explores the Early Years of Tom Clancy’s Fictional Spy

But a muddy chronology will test your patience

Chris Pine is Jack Ryan in Shadow Recruit.

Chris Pine is Jack Ryan in Shadow Recruit.

The dim star wattage in this fifth rehash is palpable from the start, with Chris Pine, on sabbatical from the Star Trek franchise, playing Tom Clancy’s CIA paste job in the Jack Ryan franchise and doing nothing for his career in the trade-off.

This overstuffed series of books grown men take to office johns and oversexed teenage girls use to blot their lipstick has always baffled me, but the derring-do political heroics and overzealous crypto-technology has been tackled by more charismatic casts than the one on display here. First, there was Alec Baldwin stalking a Soviet submarine in The Hunt for Red October (1990), followed by Harrison Ford, the best Jack Ryan of them all, in two thrillers in succession as he tried to stop the I.R.A. from blowing up Buckingham Palace in Patriot Games (1992) and, two years later, battled the Colombian drug cartel in A Clear and Present Danger (1994). By the time preppy pretty boy Ben Affleck took over in the poorly received Sum of All Fears in 2002, narrowly surviving a nuclear bomb sent by neo-Nazi terrorists to blow up a football stadium in Baltimore, the series had run out of preposterous fodder to keep kids awake, and I prayed it would stay that way. I should have known better. Only a fool would overestimate Hollywood on the scent of a warmed-over, moneymaking slab of box-office bacon.

And so we get Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, with Chris Pine, barely beyond the age of acne, escorting us through the reluctant spy’s early years like a Boy Scout playing James Bond. This espionage thriller centers on Jack, the new covert recruit, untrained and inexperienced, pushing pencils behind a desk at C.I.A. headquarters, who is suddenly dispatched for reasons known only to screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp on his first perilous field assignment to unravel a terrorist Russian scheme to crash the U.S. economy and destroy Wall Street and then the world. The goal of the villains in all Jack Ryan flicks is to blow up something. It might as well be the world.

The film is sloppily directed by the distinguished Kenneth Branagh, who also plays the leading Soviet terrorist, an oily Soviet intellectual with a bad accent named Viktor Cherevin, who takes his homicidal orders from a sinister oligarch played by—are you ready?—Mikhail Baryshnikov. This Shadow Recruit chapter is pieced together with spit and chewing gum from chunks of all 13 Tom Clancy books. On the surface, Jack is hurled into harm’s way the minute he enters his hotel room in Moscow, followed by the unexpected, uninvited arrival of his girlfriend, Cathy (a wasted Kiera Knightley, who has been displayed to better advantage elsewhere), a long, time-wasting dinner in which Mr. Branagh tries to seduce her and a nightcap during which Cathy is kidnapped and dragged through the Kremlin screaming for her life, with Jack in hot pursuit following orders on a cell phone from his boss and supervisor, military mentor William Harper (Kevin Costner). If you feel none of this makes sense and the plot begins to resemble an SNL skit on global satire, you’re not alone.

Wisely realizing it is no longer enough to evoke terror and then trivialize it with corny heroics, the creative team behind Shadow Recruit takes up as little of your time as necessary sending the Americans smashing their way through the rainy, murky streets of Moscow (played by Liverpool) without the ability to speak the language, hire an interpreter or follow a street map. Instead, to make myriad mumbo-jumbos more believable, they try to make the superhero more human by backflipping to his humble roots in a true jumble of chronological borscht that explains the Jack Ryan mythology.

So although this installment claims to be a global action thriller set in the present day, Jack is first seen as a student at the London School of Economics who awakens from a nap on a park bench on Sept. 11, 2001, to the epic shock of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Relinquishing all hope for graduation and postponing his Ph.D., he joins the Marines. Eighteen months later, he’s in Afghanistan, where a helicopter attack forces him into medical retirement and eight months of rehab at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center under the care of a sexy nurse named Cathy (Ms. Knightley) and the watchful eye of senior C.I.A. recruiter Mr. Costner.

After what seems like a lifetime of extraneous exposition that does nothing to elucidate an already lubberly fictional evolution, Jack and Cathy become lovers after he leaves his job as a stock analyst and becomes a secret spy. Suspecting he’s having an affair, Cathy, who is now a pediatrics surgeon, follows him to Moscow and becomes an equal partner in his passion to save the world with his life hanging in the balance. (Physical abuse, broken bones and black eyes are O.K., as long as they aren’t caused by another undercover operative in a skirt—though it’s anybody’s guess how one man can survive so many beatings with a bad back). After this much padding, there’s no time to get the movie back on point for a happy ending before the Soviets blow up Wall Street. But you get the picture, even if I don’t.

Nobody connected with Shadow Recruit has learned the art of consistent suspense—an element essential to the success of any techno-thriller. The chronology is so muddy that you don’t know what you’re watching anyway. They seem to be making it up as they go along. The Jack Ryan movies differ from the Tom Clancy books in every way possible, showing the C.I.A. Everyman at an assortment of ages, sometimes married to Cathy, sometimes single, but always jumping around inconsistently through years and settings that challenge credulity, playing hopscotch with time frames.

In the earlier Jack Ryan flicks, which take place before 9/11, Jack and Cathy are already wed and have four kids. This time, the events of 9/11 are already part of the past, and they haven’t even met yet.  By my rough calculation, the real Jack Ryan should be approximately 103. Preposterous but moderately engaging, Jack Ryan has outlived his welcome, and there’s no end in sight. With more sequels to come, we’ll no doubt live to see the world’s cheesiest counterterrorist in some future incarnation played by Justin Bieber.

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT
WRITTEN BY Adam Cozad and David Koepp
DIRECTED BY Kenneth Branagh
STARRING Chris Pine, Kevin Costner and Keira Knightley
RUNNING TIME 105 min.
RATING 2/4