RECAP: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014): Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh descended from atop his mountain of Shakespearean prestige and Marvel money to direct and appear in this tight, Clancy-inspired thriller. He does a bang-up job.

This movie came out in January, a major setback for its box office chances and the future of the character, a shame, because Branagh’s movie is every bit as good as those Bourne movies, and devoid of nauseating handheld cameras.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: CIA operative Jack Ryan clashes with Russian terrorists, all while keeping his girlfriend from dumping him.

Hero (7/10)

Jack Ryan is an economics student at the London School of Economics–

Jack Ryan is a volunteer Marine flying missions in Afghanistan–

Jack Ryan is a war hero struggling to regain the ability to walk–

Jack Ryan is a CIA operative working undercover on Wall Street, tracking foreign holdings and tracing funding for terrorist cells. Can we settle on this, movie? We can? Terrific.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit tells the story of a green Jack Ryan (Chris Pine). As he’s stated many times in his movies, he’s an analyst, not an agent, and we see his (several) origins as this movie begins, each moment adding layers to the character.

Ryan answers the call to serve when he watches the Twin Towers burning on a TV screen at the London School of Economics.

Cut to Afghanistan in 2003. Ryan flies in a helicopter, alongside snowy peaks, telling his unit that he volunteered for this shit. He backs the Baltimore Ravens and rags on the guy who cheers for the Bengals. A missile hits their chopper. F’s him up pretty bad.

Cut to Walter Reed Medical Center. Ryan struggles to walk again, meets plucky nurse Cathy Muller (Keira Knightly), meets CIA boss Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), joins CIA.

It was a big 10 minutes for Ryan. Harper convinces him to finish his PhD and work on Wall Street where he’ll do that spy-on-foreign-companies thing I mentioned earlier. With little delay Ryan uncovers some trouble in Russia and gets himself a flight there to audit some files.

Ryan’s first day in Russia is the second-worst day of his life. (Couldn’t you say that about most people? Hey-o.) The large bodyguard escorting him to the hotel tries to kill him, so Ryan goes ahead and drowns him in the ornate, raised bathtub.

This scene showed everything about Ryan that makes him an interesting character. First, he spots the hitman’s gun’s reflection in a window overlooking Moscow, dodges the initial shot, and runs from the impending gunfire. Ryan uses tact and guile, rather than insane fighting skills, to kill this villain. These guys don’t trade blows like prizefighters.

After Ryan kills the bodyguard who failed at both his jobs (body guarding and assassinating), he shows his humanity when, in calling the CIA emergency hotline and meeting with Harper, his hands shake and he can’t remember where to meet his contact. Ethan Hunt and James Bond would never have this problem, which makes them hard to relate to, but with Ryan we have a way in.

Our other way in? His girlfriend, Dr. Muller. They’ve been together for years.  They aren’t married, and it’s causing some trouble, seemingly from her unwillingness to commit and his lying.

Though the movie is in danger of becoming a domestic drama, it never quite dips to that, and, as you might predict, Muller gets dragged into the spy stuff a la True Lies. Ryan shows he is a man of the spy world and the real world. He has friends, a woman, maybe a cat. We like this guy.

As the movie progresses, Ryan gets a little better, a little more adjusted, at being in the field. When Harper tells him to duck and shoots a guy right behind him, Ryan looks at him like, “Damn dude, nice shot. A little messed up, but nice shot.”

Ryan freaks out big time when main perpetrator Viktor Cherevin kidnaps his fiancée and nearly breaks a bulb in her mouth. But when he and Muller are safely on the CIA jet back to the States, he’s in full-fledged let’s-analyze-some-databases mode.

Pine often plays characters who have a humor streak they tuck away when the going gets really tough. Ryan is not one of those guys, yet Pine falls into Ryan’s foibles with little difficulty.

Villain (7/10)

Kenneth Branagh looks like Ewan McGregor’s weird uncle. So observed my wife. Branagh plays Viktor Cherevin, the head of a large Russian bank, both of which have their hands dipped in the world of general terrorism.

Cherevin is a fan of Napoleon art and revenge, specifically against the United States, whose grenade lodged itself inside him during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He’s carried a chip on his shoulder, possibly literally, for three decades.

Cherevin’s motivation for attacking the U.S. is sound–their weapons harmed him. Ryan silently listens to his grenade story. He never brings up his wounding in the same Afghanistan, and possibly with Soviet weapons. (The movie fails to address this dichotomy. It should have.)

Branagh has mastered the death stare, and he employs it perfectly at the fine restaurant across the street from his building. First, Cherevin’s assistant tells him to check his phone. He then learns there’s been a breach at his office, precisely when Ryan was missing from the dinner he was sharing with his fiancée and Cherevin. At that moment Cherevin delivers an I-know-it-was-you stare to Muller (and the camera) strong enough to crack a safe.

After Ryan escapes with the data, Lemkov, Cherevin’s primary muscle, lambastes him as a Russian characterization: “Same old weaknesses. Vodka, Vanity, Women.” VVM. Is this a Clancy techno-thriller or a Tolstoy psychodrama? Lemkov says that his son, were he alive, would be ashamed of him.

Cherevin answers Lemkov’s charges with multiple shots to the chest. Then he steals his light bulb, the same light bulb he later stuffs in Muller’s mouth, when he tells her (and Ryan on the phone) that he will smash it inside her, and that its pieces will screw up the enamel on her teeth, her gums, and even penetrate her lungs.

Brutal stuff, but in Russia, brutality is the only way to survive. I guess. I’ve never been there, but American movies and books tell me so.

Action/Effects (5/10)

Cherevin’s chief plan to foil Ryan is to steal his woman. They roll up into the CIA safe house in a very unsafe manner and snatch Muller, as she plays Angry Birds, from an SUV.

Ryan and Harper fight back, but the tear gas shot into the room with the CIA agents disorients them. One driver tries to crush Ryan between two cars, but the driver turns on his lights. Why would you give away your position if trying to surprise someone into a chassis sandwich?

Ryan follows Muller through Moscow while they chat on the phone. Pine puts all his fear into this moment. He’s scared; he’s got the jimmy hands again, as holds the phone. He’s going back and forth between Harper navigating him through Ryan’s earpiece and Cherevin on the phone. Meanwhile, Muller is with Cherevin, giving him the silent treatment.

“I have always found” Cherevin says, “the swiftest results are achieved by working with loved ones.” He slaps and chokes Muller and threatens to smash a light bulb in her mouth. “Quite a bit of…havoc, for 40 watts.” Branagh plays the scene coolly, like it’s a Sunday drive.

“Do you think Jack will get to you?” Cherevin asks Muller, way, way too much in her personal space. “Or do you think he thinks it is a game?” Then Cherevin sniffs Muller in that way that all the creepiest of creeps sniff women in movies.

Then Ryan, catching the truck, crashes his car into a garbage truck. That was a neat twist that you don’t see much. It’s always the villain crashing and always at the end of the chase. Not so this time. But Ryan continues on foot. More below.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is light on the action set pieces. Most of the action occurs in Russia, where the government generally frowns on CIA activity. This fact hamstrings the whole team into avoiding confrontation as much as stopping Cherevin.

Sidekicks (6/8)

Dr. Cathy Muller: Ol’ Mouth Breather Keira Knightly takes on the role of angry, sick-of-it-all American significant other to a secret agent. She pulls off a Yank twang quite well, always a risk when actors cross the Pond.

Muller knows her man is a general bullshitter, but she avoids the storming off we might expect to see. She patiently bides her time, knowing, like everyone except Ryan, that it’s all coming to a head in Moscow.

Early in the film she shows up in Ryan’s posh “hot’l” room (pronunciation courtesy of Cherevin), finds his handgun, and confronts him. He tells her he’s in the CIA. She’s thrilled, because at least it ain’t a woman.

Muller demands to help distract Cherevin during a crucial moment, the dramatic dinner scene set across the street from the villain’s headquarters, and acquits herself well, holding his gaze and diagnosing him with cirrhosis. Ryan is the one who blows it when he broke into Cherevin’s office and tripped the alarm.

Muller’s joyride through Moscow was, I suppose, more of a terror ride. But she acquitted herself well in the face of a Russian criminal mastermind. Ryan rescues her and they fly back to the States.

On the CIA’s plane Ryan and crew investigate the plot to destroy America. But the movie does not forget Muller. She’s sitting in a seat, out of the action, but she watches her fiancé conduct the desk jockeys. Knightly gives her character a look that blends incredulity and amazement. She’s learning that her hubby has a huge, powerful skill set, and he hid it from her for years.

Muller speaks not one word on the plane until the agents discover the New York pictures Aleksandr used to plot his bombing, but brief cuts to her tell her story: she is going to have a life very different when she’s married, and not just because she’s married.

Cmdr. Thomas Harper: Kevin Costner plays Ryan’s handler, the man with all the answers and an ability to steal dogs. Costner has made a career of making us, the audience, feel warm and protected, and he does the same to Ryan.

When Ryan emerges from his Moscow hotel, Harper is there to tell him that he has to trust someone. Harper tells him about the first time he killed a person (it was a bystander), and he provides him with a handgun.

Harper’s always popping up at the right moments with the right amount of calm advice and sniper bullets.

Muller’s strong subplot adds much to the movie and gives it an angle not often seen in the spy genre.

Henchmen (1/8)

Cherevin has his associates, sure, but he doesn’t want to give them any screen time. Might be because the villain and the director are the same person.

Aleksandr Cherevin, the thought-dead son and enactor of the bomb plot portion of the main plot, says not one word. He’s lived in the heart of America, Dearborn, Michigan, since he fake-died at the age of nine.

Thanks to Ryan and company’s work on the CIA plane, the FBI can track him to his house. Aleksandr runs, staying a few hours ahead of the feds, but not before greeting his boss down at the ol’ car plant with a knife to the gut. “Here’s my severance package,” he could have said but didn’t.

He’s ready to fight, though, and certainly does put fist to face, when the moment requires. He appears Ryan’s equal in martial skill, and his willingness to die is unmatched this side of an ISIS camp. Luckily for him, and thousands of New Yorkers, he got his wish.

Stunts (3/6)

Two breakneck car chases amp up the pace in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. One occurs in the climax, which I’ll discuss later. Another takes place after Cherevin has captured Muller and is driving her through Moscow. Cherevin wants the information off of a hard drive Ryan stole, and holds her hostage. Ryan chases him in a slick car during the night in the city called the Whitestone.

Ryan is simultaneously on the phone with Cherevin, driving the car, and listening to Harper navigate in his ear the directions needed to catch Cherevin, since Muller’s ring is also a locater. Ryan delicately weaves through the traffic, which, I’m sure, in a megalopolis of nearly 11 million, has horrific traffic.

The most interesting part of the chase comes when a cargo truck backs out and Ryan crashes into it. Ryan gets out and chases Cherevin’s truck as it makes a couple of turns (at regular speed, since he doesn’t know he’s being followed. Harper barks in Ryan’s ear that the truck has driven into a circle, and must come back around to the starting point.

Ryan grabs a pipe, sprints to the collision point, and, as the truck makes a turn, leaps into the driver’s window and smashes the pipe through it, incapacitating the driver. At this moment the CIA backup team arrives and shoots a couple of guys in the middle of Moscow, Ryan rescues Muller, and delivers a smashing blow to Cherevin’s chin. A terrific car chase with unusual elements.

The one fight takes place in Ryan’s hotel room with the hulking assassin. Ryan dodges a dozen shots at close range (you had one job, assassin!), and is forced to hide in the shower, clutching the ceiling. When the assassin flings back the curtain, Ryan falls onto him. They fight, a lot of glass and porcelain is destroyed, and Ryan drowns the guy in the bathtub. Pretty good fight.

Climax (2/6)

With the data and the girl in tow, Ryan flies back to America. In 20 seconds the CIA has figured out that Cherevin’s son didn’t die, was transported to the US under false identity, and is now on the run from the FBI because he’s cooking up domestic terrorism to precede the $2 trillion salary dump that will destroy US economy.

The entire scene on the plane flying Ryan from Russia with his love to the US exists to show the CIA investigating Cherevin’s master plan. There’s a lot of record digging and thinking out loud. Costner raises his voice a little bit in that way of his that let’s you know he’s mad, but we’re all still having fun, aren’t we?

They figure out the attack will be in Manhattan. Cherevin’s son’s fake father went to New York to scout locations and post them online so the boy could plan the attack. That’s what broke the plan. The terrorists made a HUGE mistake. Not in posting the pictures, but in not using GOOGLE MAPS.

They land at Newark. Ryan has to go back in a chopper, where he hasn’t been since his last one blew up over Afghanistan. He makes it. In Manhattan, Ryan has figured out the plan. Cherevin’s son painted his Ford Econoline van with a wide wheelbase to look like the NYPD police vans, and only Ryan’s bright blue eagle eyes can spot the slight smudge on the P in POLICE.

Ryan borrows his finance buddy’s bike and pursues Cherevin Jr. below ground, into a cavernous water chamber where, if the bomb explodes, it will cause things like overpressure and shock waves that will flatten half of Wall St.

They fight. Ryan has neither weapons nor armor, only surprise. Aleksandr has a baton and body armor. This fight occurs in flowing water, thigh deep, negating roundhouse kicks and backflips and such. Mostly they just slam each other into the van door.

Aleksandr starts a timer, which is cliched, sure, but probably sensible. If he wants to survive he can’t just press a detonation button. And because the van is well underground, he will have trouble using radio detonation. The timer was the best move.

Ryan subdues Aleksandr long enough to put him in the back of the van with the bomb, exactly where you want the guy who is actively trying to detonate said bomb, and drive the van back above ground.

He calls Harper and asks for a “clear path to the water,” something simple to do in lower Manhattan during the workday when the police have cordoned off huge swathes of asphalt.

But Ryan finds a way. The best always do. He also finds Aleksandr fiddling with the bomb’s timer override, so Ryan turns on cruise and ties the seatbelt to the steering wheel to go back there and fight the dude again. Luckily, the van was a straight shot to the water.

Ryan and Aleksandr grapple from the edge of the van, until Ryan sees what’s ahead and bails out. He hits the road and must have broken an arm or shoulder or something. No matter, because the van careens into the East River and explodes. Everyone is saved!

Back in Russia, as he contemplates Napoleon, Cherevin is summoned to the forest. As Sorokin, Cherevin’s boss, drives by, Cherevin mutters, “It was always for Russia.” Sorokin says, “So is this,” and an underling shoots him.

Setting the bomb plot in New York surely grounded the story for most of the American audience. I think the movie would have done better to stay in Russia. The threat of Ryan’s getting caught by the KGB or the police or any group in Russia made the first two acts simmer tensely.

Also, Muller was in no danger the moment that CIA plane landed at EWR. She was already making dinner plans while Ryan was off trying to conquer his fear of helicopters and stop the worst attack on American soil in history, excepting 9/11.

Jokes (2/4)

Kevin Costner delivers the charm. He always delivers the charm, but when your costar is a spy at the end of his rope, you have to deliver a better pitch. Costner does.

When he and Ryan meet in the Moscow park, Commander Harper has a dog. Whose dog? Who knows? He just took it from someone’s yard. They have their meeting, and then Harper makes Ryan return the dog.

After Muller surprises her man in Moscow, Ryan tells his fiancee that he’s in the CIA. She repsonds, “Thank God. I thought you were having an affair.” Their repartee is witty and light, until the dinner scene with Cherevin, when it becomes loaded with meaning.

I think Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit used comedy exactly as it needed too. There are enough tense scenes, and the right sprinkling of jokes can break that tension just enough to help ratchet it up in the next scene.

Setting (2/4)

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit takes place in Russia. And they really did film in Russia. We know this because when Ryan arrives in Russia the camera pans across the vast city’s expanse and its beautiful, stately buildings.

We never forget how glitzy the oiled-up Moscow of Jack Ryan’s world is. This is the Lower Manhattan of Russia, though, hardly representative of the Real Russia, but what the country’s tourism ministry would want Hollywood to showcase.

Harper and Ryan meet a few times, and each location is terrific. They meet in a gorgeous city park full of nighttime revelers. They meet in Ryan’s palatial hotel room. And they meet in a garage. OK, two out of three ain’t bad.

Before I deride the movie too much for throwing glitter on Moscow, consider this: Russia’s capital houses more billionaires than any other city on Earth. New York, London, Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo–they all have fewer folks worth 10 figures. Maybe the city is that glitzy.

Ryan’s hotel room takes the yellow cake for its opulence. Thick mahogany tables, sitting rooms, huge marble bathrooms, a tub on a dais–the room has it all. That’s what Company money buys you.

Commentary (1/2)

Shadow Recruit trots out the old Russia versus America trope. The motive, for Russia, remains unchanged–destroy America. This time the method’s different. Russia will harm the US not with ICBMs, but with IOUs.

Yeah, there’s terrorism still. That’s a big part of the plan. But blowing up Wall St. is only the first part. Russia didn’t produce Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy just to ignite a Ford van. The killing of tens of thousands would precede dumping $2 trillion on foreign markets, crippling the US and Chinese economies.

It’s a pretty good idea, if poorly executed. The plan shows us just how fragile the global economy is. Can one pissed off financial executive transform the world order in a few minutes? Well, can’t 19 trained pilots?

Offensiveness (0/-2)

The main players are white dudes. That’s a cliche as old as the hills supporting the Hollywood sign. But the supporting cast is a diverse group of younger actors speaking single lines. It’s something, I guess.

Muller gets to play the damsel in distress during her ride through Moscow with a light bulb in her mouth, but otherwise she’s a strong character. She’s a check splitter. That’s interesting. Unless Cherevin’s paying. But who wouldn’t charge dinner to Cherevin? Besides, he invited her to the restaurant, so he’s obligated, right? I’m getting distracted.


  • “This isn’t couples therapy. It’s geopolitics.” Great line from Costner.
  • I love when a movie takes us to a city, showing that city’s most iconic buildings, and then makes a point to tell us where we are. Case in point: we see a bird’s-eye view of the London Eye, Parliament, and Big Ben. Then comes the word LONDON on the bottom of the screen.

Summary (36/68): 53%

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit marks the fifth appearance of Jack Ryan on a movie screen, and I can’t understand why he’s not more popular. Harrison Ford’s two turns as Ryan were well done, and Alec Baldwin played Ryan in the classic Hunt for Red October.

Perhaps the answer lies in his inescapability. Ryan is an analyst thrust into the spy world. He doesn’t like flying. He doesn’t like killing. He’s a desk jockey–just like us. Therein lies the problem. The viewing public, I think, wants pure escapism in its spy movies, and not people we can relate to. (Skyfall, the most retrospective Bond movie yet made, also grossed more than a billion dollars, so maybe I’m full of it.)

This movie could have been a great one. Its underwhelming climax prevented that. It’s still a good movie and worth watching.