'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit' Is Like 'Mission: Impossible' Without the Bloat

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
(From Paramount)Like a Mission: Impossible movie without all the bloat, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit keeps the pace brisk as it dusts off a beloved franchise with a fresh face and some old tricks.

It's good. Better than what most people are likely expecting from a January action movie. That's thanks to Chris Pine, who is so natural as Jack Ryan you have to wonder what casting directors were thinking when Ben Affleck played him 12 years ago in The Sum of All Fears. But it's thanks even more to director Kenneth Branagh's keen sense of how to bring genre material alive.

After doing Thor, it shouldn't be a surprise. Branagh was previously known for a Shakespearean attachment that made even Shakespeare enthusiasts roll their eyes, but he's enjoying a career resurgence after embracing the more cartoonish aspects of the Bard's work. It gives Shadow Recruit, an unambiguous guys-with-guns movie, the sort of gravitas audiences need when they're trying to plug into an unstoppable big screen badass. And conversely it keeps the movie from dying of self-seriousness. Branagh, who cast himself as villain Viktor Cherevin, says things like, "I was always for Russia," stares thoughtfully at a painting of Napoleon at Waterloo, and digs into Russian literature. It's straight-from-the-playbook Ruskie movie villainy delivered sans irony.

Branagh clearly had fun tweaking this character into the caricature we get onscreen. He's an old-fashioned throwback who delivers menacing one-liners, does predictably unpredictable things like beating up his male nurse, and suffers from a poetic hamartia — a case of cirrhosis his doctors say will kill him inside of three months.

This version of Jack Ryan is a former Marine who left Afghanistan in 2003 after getting messed up in a nasty helicopter crash. Kevin Costner, acting kind of laughably clandestine, recruits him to the CIA early on and places him in a Wall Street firm where he discovers some shady dealings with a deep-pocketed Russian client, who happens to be Branagh's aforementioned cartoonish villain. After some set-up, things move fast.

Branagh keeps things moving without overwhelming us with non-stop Michael Bay-style action. He switches things up by dropping us, without warning, into the first major action sequence, slows things down with some tension-filled dialogue, and then moves us into a white-knuckle heist sequence.

The secondary villain is a sleeper agent in Dearborn, Mich., who's basically a Russian Jason Bourne. Of course the movie's trajectory sets him on a collision course for Chris Pine, and it all gets a little predictable. But you are going to see a Jack Ryan movie. Predictability is practically a selling point. Not to give the movie a pass, but what I liked about Shadow Recruit was not how it subverted my expectations. That's not even what I wanted out of it. What I did want, and what I got, was a movie that fulfilled those expectations in fun little, unexpected ways. It's like it uses unexpected means to reach a predictable end.

This is not to say it's perfect. The opening scene, set on September 11, 2001, made me roll my eyes so hard I nearly fell out of my seat. Does any movie ever really earn those 9/11 references? Branagh uses it for character motivation and development, but he could've opened with Ryan in Afghanistan in 2003 instead of in college in London, watching the Towers fall in 2001. I would have understood he got into the war because of 9/11 without a little tastelessly inserted footage dropped in to better illustrate what he's fighting for.

Paramount is undoubtedly casting around for a new franchise, so if things go well at the box office, we'll undoubtedly be seeing Pine suit up as Ryan for a repeat in some exotically dangerous land. If that happens, my expectations will have risen considerably. After going into this movie thinking I was in for some boring schlockiness I was pleasantly surprised, and I wouldn't mind seeing more of what Branagh would do with the franchise.

I write about movies for Zimbio.com, which means I spend way too much time thinking about the geekiest possible ways to approach the cineplex. I'm also hopelessly addicted to audio books. Follow me: Google