Jack Ryan isn’t James Bond. For starters, Bond was trained as an agent and groomed to be a covert operative in the field, as comfortable with killing as with basic espionage, while Jack Ryan — hero of many novels spanning the career of author Tom Clancy — moved from a brief career with the Marines to life as a CIA analyst, working to affect change by solving puzzles. But on a broader scale, Bond’s film presence is an ethereal one, adapting itself to different trends in moviemaking and pop culture as the franchise as marched on decade after decade. Bond exists for the 20th and 21st centuries, a character designed to be plugged into whatever’s next. Ryan, though, is very much a man of his era: the Cold War. Even as The Hunt for Red October (1990) cleared the path for Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), Ryan as a character felt married to Russian spy games and Reagan-era paranoia. Even the men who played him on screen — Alec Baldwin for one movie, Harrison Ford for two — feel as much as part of that era as anything else. Even the 2002 film The Sum of All Fears, which attempted to reboot the series by moving the original novel’s 1984 setting to the present day, kept it in the family with Russian bad guys. That the movie came out eight months after 9/11 and didn’t come close to touching on that kind of terrorism is a bit of a fluke: shooting was finished before the attacks, and that film’s director had already said that he had “no intention of promoting negative images of Muslims or Arabs.” But it’s not hard to imagine that, had the movie been made later, it still would have opted for a return to the well of U.S.-U.S.S.R. relations, if only in spirit. Bond skips across pop culture like a stone; Ryan rests in it like an anchor.
So what are we to make of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the first Ryan film firmly in the post-9/11 era and one that uses that event as the catalyst that sends Ryan into the Marines and eventually the clandestine services — even as it calmly balks at any attempt to update itself for life after the fall of the Berlin Wall? What does it mean that this Ryan is defined by those events but the words “nine-eleven” or “war on terror” are ever mentioned? What could be gained by trying to have it both ways: to mine the deaths of more than 3,000 people for narrative juice while living in a world where those things might as well have been a dream? Is such a thing even possible?
It’s hard to say, and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a little schizophrenic about the whole thing. After Ryan (Chris Pine) is shot down with fellow Marines in a helicopter over Afghanistan early in the war on terror, he’s recruited (in admittedly low light) to join a section of the CIA tasked with antiterrorism. This is how he begins his career as an analyst, working undercover at a Wall Street bank and crunching numbers for his CIA handler, Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner). Eventually, a trip to Moscow to check out a lead on a shady financier leads to a run-in with a bodyguard sent to kill Ryan, and after a prolonged fight, Ryan kills the guard and flees. He’s shaken by the whole event, especially his role as a killer, but he doesn’t get to struggle with it for long: he’s given a gun and promoted to fully operational field agent. It’s an interesting departure from the earlier films in the series — Ryan only gets about 30 minutes of screen time here as a recognizable human before being shepherded down the path to bulletproof action hero — but it’s also, in its way, the film’s most honest depiction of the United States’ global self-image in the wake of the fall of the World Trade Center. Ryan is pressed into service against his will here, killing at first out of a sense of duty before being upgraded to an international force for revenge and justice. This is the ultimate version of the story we tell ourselves about 2001 and the years since. Here, we get just enough remorse from Ryan to get credit, then it’s off to the races. He runs, hacks, fights, kills, and jumps motorcycles for the red, white, and blue.
That’s what Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is: a bloodless revenge fantasy that uses 9/11 to slingshot the viewer back in time to when good guys were good and bad guys were named Boris. Just as Ryan’s rapid evolution from gifted analyst to super-spy is a reflection of our own idealized history, the film itself is a stylistic reinvention of the franchise, from suspense thriller to sloppy action flick. It’s the easiest and broadest of all possible versions of what the film could have been, and Paramount’s dedicated trolling for a new franchise is palpable in every soft-pedaled idea and frame and beat that look just like a hundred other action movies from the past few years. This is moviemaking as the ultimate narcotizing agent, right down to the shot of the London skyline with the word “LONDON” dramatically typed onto the screen, just so we don’t have to worry about paying attention. Directed with an uncertain style by Kenneth Branagh — who also co-stars as a Russian villain as imagined by 1980s stand-up comedy — the film alternates between drab respectability and blurry, clumsily staged action. There’s a lot here to see, but it’s often impossible to see it.
That’s a shame, too, because the germ of the story isn’t bad. Pine has a knack for playing guys who are good at what they do but even better at getting knocked off their feet, like the mix of bravado and nerve he brought to the part of James Kirk in the latest pair of Star Trek films. He’s at his best here when the story (written by Adam Ozcad and rewritten by David Koepp) gives him a chance to live in the tension between his life as a spy and his role as a loving boyfriend to Cathy (Keira Knightley), one of the doctors who helped him after his crash. His trip to Russia to investigate a power player named Cherevin (Branagh) lets him get his hands dirty in the spy world, and his queasiness at discovering what he’s actually signed on for is compelling. It’s the same struggling against surroundings that always makes for an interesting story, and is part of what made earlier Ryan films (particularly Red October, where Baldwin keeps sliding farther into conflict) so good. About halfway through his story, though, he becomes imbued with superhuman abilities, able to hack any computer, chase down a jeep on foot, and beat up whoever needs it.
Maybe there was nowhere else for Jack Ryan to go. Maybe, having beaten the Russians many times over, he could only return for one more round. Maybe it’s somehow too much to ask a series that used to be rooted in suspense and story and political intrigue to stay that way. Maybe this is what we deserve. But I don’t believe that. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a bumpy, occasionally well-intentioned, often very dumb movie, but the worst part is how insulting it is. It asks us to forget everything we ever knew and learn it again in a jumble, turning our protagonist into a superhero and us into passive witnesses of his skill at defeating an enemy we’ve long since conquered.