Jack Ryan, the superstar CIA analyst created 30 years ago by Tom Clancy, is now in his fifth motion picture, with a fourth actor playing him. I’m more than happy to see Chris Pine, so good as the hot-dog rebel Captain Kirk in the Star Trek films, take a whack at portraying a character previously embodied by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck — even if Pine, with his wolfish crystal-blue-eyed sensuality (he’s like the American Jonathan Rhys Meyers), comes off as more of a lover than a fighter. Yet given this revolving door of actors, and considering that the Ryan character is pretty much a Cold War relic to begin with, is it any wonder that you may now have almost no idea what defines him? Ryan isn’t an addled badass like Jason Bourne, or an icy-sexy megaspy like James Bond, or a master-of-illusion daredevil like the hero of the Mission: Impossible films. Almost nothing about him is distinctive. In the pulsating but colorless Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, he gets into fistfights and car chases, downloads information from computers, and skulks around looking tense and concerned. He might as well be called Generic Agent Guy.
The movie is — surprise! — a franchise reboot (there hasn’t been one of those in at least three weeks), and it rather awkwardly tries to jam Clancy’s USA-vs.-the-Russkies paranoia into a post-9/11 world. Ryan starts off as a soldier in Afghanistan in 2003, where after being injured in a helicopter attack he catches the eye of a winkingly imperious CIA officer (Kevin Costner). A decade later Ryan has been installed as an agency mole on Wall Street. His snooping leads him to Moscow, where he uncovers a plot to drain the dollar of its value and launch a targeted attack on U.S. soil so that it will look like said attack was responsible. Can you say big yawn?
The Bourne films have accustomed us to highly layered espionage plots, but in Shadow Recruit there’s just a lone old-school Russian bad guy. His name is Viktor Cherevin, and as played by Kenneth Branagh (who also directed), he’s a gimlet-eyed oligarch with scary arm tattoos, a heroin habit, and one measly ”master plan.” In the centerpiece sequence Jack and his fiancée, Cathy (Keira Knightley) — who has just learned he’s in the CIA — go to dinner with Cherevin and trick him into letting his guard down. The idea is that he’ll be seduced by the attentions of the beautiful Cathy so that Jack can then slip away and sneak into the lair where Cherevin keeps his computer files. It’s the most tense sequence in the film, yet even as you’re enjoying it, you’re thinking: How corny! If Cherevin is such a formidable foe, how can he possibly get sucked in by this flimsy charade?
Branagh did a nice job of directing Thor, but all he can do here is try to energize the recycled pulp of the script. Costner is in fine dry form, Knightley is at her most open and gorgeous, and Pine goes through the motions of saving the Western world with a swaggery concentration that keeps you watching. I just hope that in the next Ryan outing, his charisma will have the added sheen that comes with being at least one step ahead of the audience. B-