The evening after I watched it, someone asked what my favorite part of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” was. Upon reflection, I realized there’s no such thing. The latest espionage flick featuring America’s stodgy answer to James Bond, “Shadow Recruit” takes Jack Ryan out of the Tom Clancy canon (the late author receives only a “characters based on” credit here) and plops him into a nouveau Cold War cloak/dagger pickle. What follows are car chases, a woman in peril, high-stakes computer hacking, hand-to-hand grappling and a race against the clock to defeat an imminent terrorist act. What does not follow are many memorable lines, any immortal characters or even so much as a really filthy double-crossing. It’s a pot-boiler that produces a good number of bubbles without really cooking much.
Going where Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck have gone before is Chris Pine (you know him as the new Capt. Kirk) playing the rebooted Ryan. We open with him dreamily loitering at the London School of Economics, care-free until he sees the World Trade Center burning on television. Cut to Afghanistan; Ryan has enlisted, then suffers grave injuries. Cut to rehab; he meets a beautiful doctor-to-be whose name might as well be Future Mrs. Ryan because she’s played by Keira Knightley, with a convincing dollop of medical-student awkwardness. Ryan is approached by a C.I.A. spook (Kevin Costner, suppressing all but the faintest wisps of charisma) who wants him to put his econ Ph.D. to work ferreting out terrorism finances, undercover on Wall Street. Here, then, is your international spy hero, although “Jack Ryan: Compliance Officer” admittedly lacks a certain something.
Great, so now we’ve got this earnest war hero and spreadsheet nerd who’s going to stop the bad guys! Except now we’ve burned up a good half hour, so we’ve got to make the interesting parts fit into, like, 75 minutes. Thank goodness a geopolitical fracas over petroleum pipelines arrives to inflame tensions between the United States and Russia. Ryan notices some monkeyshines in a gargantuan currency account that leads him to believe the Russians — represented ably by a sinister financier played cold by Kenneth Branagh, who also directs — are planning a catastrophic economic strike. The phrase “Second Great Depression” in 2014 offers the same plot propulsion as “thermonuclear war” might have a generation ago. Used to be, these spy games kept us all from getting microwaved. Now, still recession-weary, we just don’t want to see unemployment triple.
It’s all strong enough stuff, if a bit rushed. Pine’s fine, easy to root for as the apple-cheeked Eagle Scout thrown into the deep end. The Ryan character endures because even with the nuclear threat subdued, we as Americans enjoy imagining the dark forces aligning against us, and like the thought of a brilliant and brave individual whose wit and heroism (instead of, say, vast military and tech superiority) keep us safe. What we miss in this Jack Ryan is any of the high-concept camp that keeps other spy franchises (cf. Bond) nimble, or the intricate plotting (cf. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) that risks losing part of the audience along the way. “Shadow Recruit” promises not to go over your head, and whether that’s a feature or a bug, it delivers. If it seems you’ve seen this story before, fret not — you won’t need to watch it a second time.