Genre: Action, Mystery, Thriller
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh
God knows they’ve tried, but the franchise just won’t stick. After nearly a quarter of a century, we’re already onto the fourth Jack Ryan. We’ve had less James Bonds’ in that time. Chris Pine is the latest man to attempt to bring the world’s number one intelligence analyst to life. He battles gamely in Kenneth Branagh’s reboot, but this new edition is light on just about anything that matters.
It’s been a good 10 years since Jack, in the form of Ben Affleck, last stumbled across the screen. The world has changed since then, and a new Jack Ryan is needed. Always the patriot, Pine’s Ryan is a London School of Economics student who signs up after 9/11 and volunteers for dangerous duties in Afghanistan. In a quick fire succession of scenes, we see him go from American student to marine lieutenant to severely wounded veteran. Once they’ve got him back on his feet, set him up with his doctor, Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), and let Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) recruit him into the CIA, the real story can start.
Jack is initially assigned to an undercover role on Wall Street tracking terrorist funds. He becomes suspicious of high and unaccounted for transfers from a Russian company run by Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh also in front of the camera). Despite not being a field agent, it turns out the CIA forgot to hire anyone else who can read a spreadsheet, leaving it to Jack to head to Moscow and uncover a plot to destabilise the USA and make Russia great again. Along the way, people try to kill him, lots of things get smashed up, and he teams up with Cathy True Lies style.
Disappointingly, it’s all pretty uninspiring stuff. Branagh and screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp have kept their sights on the achievable, aiming for a solid genre thriller, but it falls between the cracks. There are elements of the classic cold war thriller, a game of wits based on tradecraft, seductive women and east vs west imperialism. Yet at the same time, large parts resemble the Bourne era slick action thriller. Unnecessary action plays out across the screen coated in a false glossy sheen. High tech gadgetry and confusing technical terms are also thrown in. With not enough of any one element, tension and ultimately entertainment is sacrificed.
The second act in Moscow is the most effective. For a brief spell, Branagh successfully immerses his film in the atmosphere of an old school spy thriller. The highlight is a wonderful race against time as Ryan breaks into Cherevin’s office to steal computer files while Cathy keeps the Russian villain occupied in a restaurant. A palpable level of tension is achieved as the sequence cuts between the protagonists. More of this and we could have been onto something.
Alas, this highpoint stands alone. The entire opening is a tedious shortcut to establishing a hero, a leading man 101. Brief scenes show him with complicated books – look he’s a smart, calmly commanding man – and struggling to get back on his feet after he’s injured – look he’s brave. Dialogue that sounds suspiciously like bullet points written on the side of the initial treatment provides further emphasis.
This approach is employed elsewhere, much to the detriment of the film. The romance that develops between Ryan and Cathy feels less like true love and more like a casual meeting at the supermarket. After a couple of interested looks they are suddenly living together. Knightley’s character as a whole doesn’t work. She’s too perky as a doctor, and too accepting of Ryan’s job later on. Just how she becomes part of the operation is beyond comprehension. The CIA clearly has recruitment problems.
Then there’s the plot. By now, pretty much every world domination plan has already been done, but even with this excuse, it’s a particularly poor scheme. A quick bit of unexplained financial trickery and the traditional sleeper agent and everything’s sorted. Cozad and Koepp appear to have created an utterly implausible central story that also manages to be plain boring. All the confusing images of financial statements and talk of algorithms can’t hide that.
Because this is a big budget thriller with Chris Pine, obligatory action has to unfold. Whether this is relevant is beside the point. Assassins and chases are dropped into the mix, the extra topping nobody asked for. The cast go through the motions, but no one seems particularly interested. Costner gets to have fun doing some action again, like he’s been given a day out paintballing by his kids, and Pine is amenably bland, but that hardly helps to raise an already flagging film. At least Branagh’s Russian accent is easy on the ear.
Out of the 5 Jack Ryan films, this is comfortably in the bottom half. He might perhaps eclipse Ben Affleck, but Pine’s outing only makes those memories of Baldwin and Ford all the sweeter. One day, the Jack Ryan franchise might finally get going. But for now, this effort should be confined to the B movie scrapheap.