Chris Pine as Jack Ryan
Keira Knightley as Cathy Muller
Kevin Costner as Thomas Harper
Kenneth Branagh as Viktor Cherevin
Lenn Kudrjawizki as Constantin
Alec Utgoff as Aleksandr Borovsky
Peter Andersson as Dimitri Lemkov
Elena Velikanova as Katya
Nonso Anozie as Embee Deng
Seth Ayott as Teddy Hefferman
Colm Feore as Rob Behringer
Gemma Chan as Amy Chang
Mikhail Baryshnikov as Sorokin
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
The fifth "Jack Ryan" film (and second reboot of the franchise), "Shadow Recruit" does away with its traditional roots to reinvent the character for a new generation, though it's more commendable for its good intentions than the use it puts them to.
Like any good reboot, we start at the beginning with economics student Jack Ryan (Pine) aching to serve his country after the events of 9/11, an ache which eventually lead him to Moscow where he is the only thing standing in the way of a plot to crash the US economy. Or he would be if he could stop worrying about how his life as a CIA agent was getting in the way of his relationship with a beautiful eye doctor (Knightley).
Most of its best qualities come in the first half as director Kenneth Branagh puts the action chops he garnered from "Thor" to good use, dropping an ill prepared Ryan into the meat grinder of field work, focusing on the effects of the stress of intelligence work in a way James Bond (Ryan's closest antecedent and most obvious comparison) can hint at but never explicitly go into. Like other stage-oriented directors moving over to the action film world, Branagh makes sure to take time in between set pieces to let the characters breathe and react to what has happened. And more importantly to tell us what they're feeling about it, even if they do show just by showing us their hands, shaking uncontrollably after killing someone for the first time. Like most techno thrillers, the tradecraft still gets more screen time than the characters, but frequently sharp dialogue from Adam Cozad and David Koepp (working from an original story by an uncredited Hossein Amini) and solid performances cover up most of the shallowness, enough to keep us caring what will happen next. The result is an intense piece of action thriller which builds and builds right up until Ryan's girlfriend (Keira Knightley) shows up in his hotel room.
No longer constrained by existing material, Branagh and his screenwriters can pick and choose which elements from the Clancy mythos they want to use and how to use them, which includes keeping it from remaining the boys club the previous versions have been. While the previous films tended to keep Cathy to the sideline as much as possible ("The Hunt for Red October" contents itself with just mentioning that Jack has a family), "Shadow Recruit" has decided to up the ante by giving Ryan a personal stake in what's going. It's a good instinct, but no one seems sure how to apply it, making the future Mrs. Ryan's increased relevance to the plot more and more forced as it goes on and rapidly decreasing the goodwill built up by the first sixty minutes.
The uncertainty of what to do with Cathy is a subset of "Ryan's" larger problem as the plot tries to veers into schizophrenia towards the end. After spending nearly two-thirds of the film in Russia through an extended second act, the action suddenly reverts back to New York for a wrap which is only tangentially connected to the villains we have been dealing with up to that point. And considering how much better Branagh's work as Cherevin is than the rest of the cast, that choice comes as a double blow. He brings a world of weariness to Cherevin that keeps him from becoming the kind of cartoon these sorts of villains normally are. By comparison Pine and Costner (as his CIA mentor) do what they do and while little of it is new, it fits the material.
It's a bit of a letdown after the strength of the first half--plus I'm not sure how many people will feel genuine jeopardy at the thought of Wall Street being blown up--but there's still enough to recommend "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," especially if they can ever figure out how to get the effect they're obviously going for. In the meantime, I look forward to Branagh's next action film - maybe he can finally do that war film version of Two Gentlemen of Verona we've all been waiting for.