There’s something disorienting — but oddly appropriate — about “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” opening the day after Oscar nominations are announced. No sooner do we pay homage to the very best that Hollywood has to offer (and Hollywood came forth with an exceptional bounty last year), than we are forced to consider yet another example of the franchise obsession on which the industry depends to survive. Snap out of it, movie fans! Awards are all well and good, but a studio’s gotta eat.
The descent from the sublime to the banal isn’t as depressing as it might have been with “Shadow Recruit,” although the trip is often vertiginous. Directed by Kenneth Branagh in a jumbled blur of dizzying close-ups, revolving camera moves, hand-held action sequences and deceptive layers of shiny surfaces, “Shadow Recruit” threatens to become less a resuscitation of the beloved Tom Clancy brand than yet another jumbled, jarring action flick that isn’t nearly as smart as its brainy protagonist.
But with Chris Pine competently stepping into shoes once occupied by Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck (and, briefly, Alec Baldwin), Jack Ryan seems to have a reasonable chance at surviving into the 21st century — as long as the space-time continuum separating the Ryanverse and “Star Trek’s” Captain Kirk holds true. In “Shadow Recruit,” Jack is pursuing his doctorate at the London School of Economics when he watches the World Trade Center fall in 2001; after enlisting with the Marines and suffering a potentially fatal injury, he’s recruited by a shadowy CIA honcho named Harper (an excellent Kevin Costner) to work as an analyst in financial espionage.
Soon enough, Ryan goes from being a Wall Street wolf in sheep’s clothing to a gun-toting, bad-guy-offing, full-on spy in Moscow. (As Harper tells him while putting a gun in his hands, “You’re operational now.”) Viewers don’t necessarily have to follow the arcane dialogue about algorithms and cellphone triangulations to understand the supremely simple plot. Suffice it to say that, true to Jack Ryan’s roots in Clancy’s Cold War-era imagination, he’s once again fighting the Russians, here personified in a ruthless villain nicely underplayed by Branagh, who’s twice joined by a cameo performer sure to elicit sentimental sighs in audience members of a certain age (i.e. mine, i.e. don’t ask).
Branagh, who proved his action bona fides with “Thor,” does an inarguably competent job of choreographing a modestly intelligent espionage thriller, even if it’s impossible to identify anything new he’s bringing to an already groaning table. If one wishes that he would pull the camera back once in a while to provide respite from the ganglia-jangling swishes and pans, one need only remember that the end-use of “Shadow Recruit” is on the five-inch screen of the guy sitting next to you on a train.
That movies now must be made for both iPhones and Imax is less a backhanded testament to Hollywood’s chronic lack of visual and spatial sense than the rock and hard place between which filmmakers are so uncomfortably jammed these days. Emerging into a new, platform-neutral world, Jack Ryan seems more like a throwback than ever. But he’s a proud one, and Pine possesses the charisma and chops to play him convincingly, as both a thinker and a doer. The most audacious “Shadow Recruit” sequel may be the one that dispenses with swishes, pans and Bourne-again distractions, and simply lets Jack Ryan play.