It’s been a long time since we’ve had the Russians used as world-threatening villains, as their on-screen menace seemed to fade with the end of the Cold War.
It’s been almost as long since we’ve had a cinematic hero who acts out of unabashed patriotism and love of country, but both qualities are on full display in the latest movie based on a Tom Clancy novel, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” --- and in so doing, the movie gives us a wildly entertaining start to the movie-going year.
The new movie takes us back to the earliest days in the CIA career of Jack Ryan, who in this series entry is a strapping young man at the very beginning of his life as an analyst searching for dangerous patterns on the world’s money markets. Played by Chris Pine, who has brought a powerful zest to the role of Captain Kirk in the new series of “Star Trek” movies, this version of Ryan is an intellectual who is leery of engaging in violence after spending a year recovering from the massive injuries he suffered from a helicopter crash as a Marine in Afghanistan.
Ryan’s home life also appears to be settled, as he lives with his longtime fiancé Cathy (Keira Knightley), who keeps putting off his desperate pleas to actually marry him. Jack is required to hide his espionage career from her unless she marries him, and his sneakiness has her wondering if he’s having an affair.
Things come to a boil when Ryan is assigned to meet a Russian oligarch named Viktor Cherevin (played by Kenneth Branagh, who also is the film’s ace director), because he has traced a series of trillion-dollar asset moves to Viktor’s mysterious financial firm. Jack thinks he’s there for a simple yet intense conversation, but he quickly finds himself fighting for his life against the giant man who the Russians supplied as his escort.
Trapped in a foreign country and gravely endangered, Jack quickly seeks the help of William Harper (Kevin Costner), the Navy officer who secretly recruited him for the CIA. Together, they resolve to find out what Viktor is hiding --- but things get really complicated when Cathy flies into town thinking she’s offering him a sexy surprise when in reality she’s just thrown the mission dangerously off the rails since the only thing Jack cares about more than the CIA is her.
What ensues from there is a crackling good series of plot twists, double-crosses, break-ins, shootouts and some truly spectacular car chases. One chase in particular has such a fantastic finale that I leaped from my seat and burst out clapping, and that’s coming from a guy who’s grown jaded after seeing more than 150 movies a year for the last four years.
And the double-whammy plot that Viktor has in store for the downfall of America is equally delicious, as Branagh plays the financial kingpin with just the right dose of sneering charm. But as riveting as the action is, and as superb as every level of the filmmaking is as well, what makes “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” truly shine is the fact that Branagh knows when to bring out a quiet, human side to balance the mayhem.
The fact that Ryan is on his first dangerous mission, and that the escort he has to kill just to survive is the first man he’s ever offed, is central to the plot. So many action movies would just regard such a victim as cinematic roadkill that shouldn’t even be acknowledged, but in this film Ryan is shaken to the core by the fact he has taken a life.
Pine plays his mix of sorrow, fear and steely determination perfectly, giving us an all-too-rare hero with a conscience.
The movie is all-too-rare in its heart-on-sleeve love of country, giving another positive reason for teen and adult viewers to watch and enjoy this film. In an age when we are left wondering on a daily basis if our country is headed in the right direction, it is utterly refreshing to see a hero and a movie that are determined to make us feel good that we’ve got a great hero looking out for us in the fictional realm at least.
“Jack Ryan: Shadow Conspiracy” has plenty of action violence, but little of it is gruesome and none of it is bloody. There are about 10 uses of God’s name in vain, including about five GD’s and a JC, but that certainly is minimal compared to countless other action films, and the only sex in the movie is implied as Jack and Cathy are shown lying in bed together in a couple of scenes. While they start the movie living out of wedlock, Jack and Cathy are clearly headed to the altar by the end.
All in all, this is a perfectly fine and expertly made entertainment for teens and adults, and younger kids will probably enjoy it too with appropriate supervision.
Carl Kozlowski is o-founder of www.radiotitans.com, and host of its shows "The Koz Effect" and "Kozversations," plus entertainment correspondent and a booker for "Grand Theft Audio."