Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit: Plain and Clancy

Kenneth Branagh relaunches the spy-movie franchise with an origins story that balances the smart, the serious and the silly

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Larry Horricks / Paramount Pictures / AP

From left: Keira Knightley and Chris Pine in "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit".

The next time you meet a solemn guy who either asks you a lot of personal questions or won’t answer yours, just say, “What do you do for a living?” If he’s in the CIA, he’ll reply, “I’m in the CIA.” That, anyway, is the tactic of frankness that intelligence boss Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) uses on ex-Marine Jack Ryan (Chris Pine), which Jack later deploys on his suspicious fiancée Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley). “Thank God!” she exclaims. “I thought you were having an affair.”

This isn’t Carrie Mathison’s CIA, but then Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit isn’t Homeland. Director Kenneth Branagh serves up an oldfangled espionage yarn, Tom Clancy–style, in which the agency is not corrupt and clueless but noble and efficient, and the Russians — particularly the satanic banker Victor Cherevin (played by Branagh) — are back in fashion as the reliable bad guys. This time of year, that’s a good thing. Amid the January leftovers of anodyne action pictures (The Legend of Hercules), subordinary cop comedies (Ride Along) and horror franchises on autopilot (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones), a reboot of an A-level spy series seems too pretty-good to be true. Shadow Recruit occupies this weekend’s movie screens as familiarly and reassuringly as a Walther PPK fits in the hand of James Bond.

(MORE: 50 Years of James Bond movies)

Jack — played in earlier decades by Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October), Harrison Ford (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger) and Ben Affleck (The Sum of All Fears) — isn’t yet a mature 007 type. This is an origins story, and the script by Adam Cozad and Davis Koepp hews faithfully to Clancy’s sketching of Jack’s early life: a college-bred Marine injured in a helicopter crash, he eventually works undercover as a compliance officer at a Wall Street brokerage. (He doesn’t tell everyone he’s in the CIA.) Like the “reader” played by Robert Redford in the 1975 Three Days of the Condor, he’s an analyst, searching for encrypted mischief. The Redford character pored over Russian books and magazines; Jack, who studied at the London School of Economics, scans the computer screen for stock transactions that may be connected to terrorists.

(READ: Colin Powell on Tom Clancy)

A trail of suspicious investments made by Cherevin leads Jack to more active work in Moscow. On his arrival he survives a murder attempt by Cherevin’s Ugandan henchman (Nonse Anozie of Game of Thrones and Ender’s Game) — an African avatar of Oddjob from Goldfinger, but with a gun instead of a steel-rimmed bowler — and dodges bullets and killer cars for the rest of his stay. Still new at a game he wasn’t trained for, Jack gets backup from Harper, his agency control, and a dozen or so computer whizzes who type very fast to sleuth a saboteur’s secrets. When he returns to the U.S.A., it’s different. If you think anyone but Young Blue Eyes will be going solo to save some prime Lower Manhattan real estate from being blown up (again — thanks, Hollywood), then you don’t know Jack.

In 1989, Branagh, a theater prodigy who was often tagged as the next Olivier, followed Lord Larry’s example by directing and starring in a film of Henry V. It earned him Oscar nominations in both categories. The same year, Costner was offered the Jack Ryan role in Red October but declined so he could concentrate on his own directing debut, Dances With Wolves; that won Best Picture and Director, plus an acting nomination. Twenty-five years later, the two former phenoms are vacationing together in Shadow Recruit.

(READ: TIME’s 1989 Kevin Costner cover story)

Costner wears his age well (he’ll be 59 on Jan. 18) and retains the star’s gift of seeming both alert and relaxed. His Walker is the CIA ideal: smooth, tough, an unerring shot and a terse parrier of Jack’s questions about waterboarding and rendition. (“Not my unit.”) Branagh, who in the movie looks like an older, nasty Jason Bateman, flashes a creepy Slavic charm when he’s not jackbooting subordinates or stuffing an LED lightbulb in a lady’s mouth. (Don’t try this at home, kids; it’s apparently lethal.) Strictly speaking, Cherevin is freelance, not a member of Putin’s spy service. But he’s the sort of ruthless schemer who put the cagey in the KGB.

(READ: TIME’s 1989 Kenneth Branagh story)

Both men are mentoring or babysitting Pine, whose résumé basically comprises two turns as James Kirk in the Star Trek revival and a ride on the Unstoppable train with Denzel Washington. Pine is 33, a year older than Baldwin when he played Jack Ryan, and no dummy, as his English degree from the University of California, Berkeley, should attest. Yet he plays many scenes with the wide eyes of a child who (happy look) got the Christmas present he wanted or (wounded look) didn’t make the chess team. If Pine is to keep playing Jack Ryan — who, in the Clancy cosmology, eventually served two nonconsecutive terms as President of the United States —  he’d better learn to play grownup.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Star Trek Into Darkness)

As a director, Branagh hasn’t gotten noticeably fancier or gone senile; he plows ahead with efficiency and the crafty managing of actors (including himself). His helming of the first Thor movie, which was on the starchy side when up in Asgard, came alive in the more realistic scenes on Earth. Realism was the intent here, Branagh has said. The picture was shot in 35-mm anamorphic, the standard back in Three Days of the Condor days, and is deglamorized enough to show its leading man’s pocked skin and its leading lady’s crooked teeth. Knightley (sporting an American accent that’s a little too careful to be persuasive) plays the sort of gumptious gal who’ll show up unannounced in the Moscow hotel room where Jack just had to drown an assassin in the bathtub.

(READ: Robert Redford on Three Days of the Condor director Sydney Pollack by subscribing to TIME)

Hollywood realism is to realism as reality TV shows are to reality: the truth jazzed up into pop fiction. If Branagh’s realism is meant to evoke Condor and The Parallax View, it must also incorporate such spy-movie implausibilities as the villain who threatens to do some awful thing just long enough for the hero to show up and stop it. Still and all, consider the January competition and praise Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit for being the year’s first movie with a three-digit IQ.