After more than a decade-long hiatus, Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan is back on the big screen. In “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” — one of the most pointlessly clunky titles in recent memory — he is reborn in the form of Chris Pine, who steps into the differing-size shoes of Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford (twice) and Ben Affleck.
This is, of course, the second rebooted hero Pine has played, the other being Captain Kirk in the 2009 “Star Trek” and its 2013 sequel — both megahits. Those films managed to make Kirk largely new, unlike the surrounding characters, who felt closer to the TV show. It's harder to assess how much Pine brings to Ryan, because, well, the Ryan films have never defined their hero in a memorable way; and the procession of different actors hasn't helped.
In “The Hunt for Red October,” Ryan started out as a CIA analyst, who finds himself thrust into a dangerous field assignment. The same setup is used for the new Ryan. After a pre-credit sequence establishing his action bona fides in the days after 9/11, we leap ahead ten years, to find him living with longtime girlfriend Cathy (Keira Knightley) and working as a covert analyst attached to a Wall Street investment firm.
When he spots some suspicious financial activity on the part of giant Russian corporation the Cherevin Group, he heads for Moscow to investigate. He is in town only long enough to be driven from airport to hotel before being attacked by a killer sent by either Cherevin or the authorities.
It's at that moment that credibility becomes a problem. We all learn to suspend disbelief on behalf of our action heroes, but there are limits. And this fight scene, while otherwise terrifically staged, exceeds them. The killer (Nonso Anozie) is gigantic, outweighing Ryan by at least 2-to-1; the idea that a desk jockey like Ryan can get the advantage over this supersized professional for even a moment is ludicrous. Pine is right on the mark in his anxiety and horror after the fight, suggesting that Ryan also knows that his victory is unbelievable.
Soon Ryan is engaged in a battle of wits with boss Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, who also directed). As an added complication straight out of the farce writer's playbook, a jealously suspicious Cathy shows up unexpectedly and is used as a diversion by Ryan and his former mentor (Kevin Costner) to distract notorious horndog Cherevin.
Knightley's role is mostly standard damsel-in-distress stuff, though the distraction scene is one of the best in the movie. Despite a thick accent, Branagh is mostly restrained in what could have been a scenery-chewing opportunity. And Costner, who has recently fared better in this sort of character role than as a lead, is better than adequate.
No matter how hard Pine works to create a “new” Jack Ryan, the character has never been distinctive enough on screen to give him much to work with. When Daniel Craig starred in the James Bond reboot, Bond had been a well-defined character for forty years. Likewise with Pine and Captain Kirk. Almost everyone would immediately recognize an imitation of Connery's Bond or Shatner's Kirk, no matter how inept the impressionist. In contrast, no one could identify a Ryan impression; in fact, it's hard to imagine who would even attempt one.
What keeps the film moving is the snap-snap succession of action scenes, though some, particularly the final big confrontation, go on too long (which is pretty much a Hollywood requirement at this point). And it seems much longer because of a sudden flood of plot details that are impossible to keep up with: I'm still trying to figure out whether one of the villains was in Michigan, Pennsylvania, or lower Manhattan, or all at once.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).