Russians still make the best movie villains. Since 9-11, Hollywood has been queasy about giving us fictional baddies from Arab countries — the line between cheap stereotypes and real-life religious extremism is too blurry, too delicate. South American drug lords have had their day, and Albanians in bad sweaters just don't cut it. But ah! the Russian villains, with their tragic, poetic souls and political ruthlessness. No wonder Kenneth Branagh, the director of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, also cast himself as one. It's the next best thing to ruling the world.
In his heart of hearts, Branagh might like to do that, too, but he's had to settle for directing blockbusters, and they at least suit his seemingly larger-than-life ambitions. Though nothing can match the wackadoodle inventiveness of his 2006 Magic Flute (which, weirdly, didn't get a proper U.S. theatrical release until 2013) or the majestic sweep of his 1996 Hamlet, Branagh's 2011 Thor managed to hurl a few inspired thunderbolts — he approached Marvel's phony Norse mythology as if he were interpreting Wagner. With Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the latest entry in the somewhat patchy canon of Tom Clancy adaptations, Branagh enters more realistic territory — provided your idea of realism is elastic enough to embrace the adventures of a dutiful young CIA agent who races the clock to stop a megalomaniacal Russian financier from blowing up Wall Street. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is half silliness, half swagger, but Branagh's arms-akimbo impudence as a director makes it work. He takes it all seriously, but with a wink.
Chris Pine plays Jack Ryan, or rather a new kind of Jack Ryan: He's a promising young student at the London School of Economics until 9-11 changes everything. He joins the Marines and barely survives a chopper crash in Afghanistan, coming close to losing the use of his legs. Luckily, a young doctor-in-training at his rehab orders him to "Walk, damn it!" or words to that effect. And because that almost-doctor, Cathy, is played by Keira Knightley — a woman with the eyes of a seductress and the jawline of an adorable baby shark — he dare not disobey.
Meanwhile, CIA elder William Harper (Kevin Costner, now in full-on silver-fox mode and looking good) notices that young Jack has pluck. Would he like to work for the organization as a plant at a Wall Street firm, keeping an eye out for hinky funds transfers that could signal terrorist activity? "Covertly?" Ryan asks, his eyes widening. He accepts, and though his job mostly involves looking at a computer screen day in and day out — barring the occasional secret meeting at, of all places, New York's Film Forum — he eventually heads to Moscow for his first field assignment. There, he crashes a thug's head into a hotel bathroom bidet and later, rather shakily, drowns the guy in a few inches of bathtub water. It takes some elbow grease to be a shadow recruit.
Branagh orchestrates all this action with Zeus-like aplomb. That early bathroom brawl is a real bone-rattler: Bodies fly, taking chunks out of any porcelain or plaster they happen to hit, and even though Jack survives the ordeal, he's visibly shaken by his first kill. Pine initially seems a little too indistinct, perhaps too irredeemably sweet, to play such an America-first go-getter (portrayed in previous movies by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck). But as his Ryan surveys his horrible handiwork, his face looks so ruddy and youthful — the weight of what he's done hits us just when it hits him. Even amid all this potboiler espionage madness, Pine is steadfastly human, a Jack Ryan whose patriotism isn't likely to override his conscience.
In fact, before Ryan even takes the CIA job, he asks Harper outright about waterboarding — the clear subtext being he wants no part of it. The world has changed since Clancy wrote his first Jack Ryan novel, The Hunt for Red October, in 1984, and neither Branagh nor screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp have any interest in living in the past. Except, maybe, when it comes to resuscitating Russia as a source of colorful villains. Branagh's character, Viktor Cherevin, is a cirrhosis-afflicted satyr who prefers his women beautiful and married — stealing them away is half the fun. And so, when he gets a gander at Cathy — she and Jack are a couple, though as yet unmarried, and she's clueless about the true nature of his job — he practically devours her with his gnomish male gaze.
It's a little strange to see an actress of Knightley's fierceness cast as the imperiled babe (Cathy has followed Jack to Russia as a "surprise," the sort of thing unsuspecting significant others are always doing in espionage fiction), but Knightley holds her own. When Viktor cozies up to her in a tony Moscow restaurant, she purrs back at him like a kitten, but you can almost see the tiger's blood throbbing in her temples.
Still, Viktor isn't easily swatted away. His accent is thick, like borscht; his eyes are cold, like vodka. He's a collection of walking clichés, writ large enough to show up on the big screen. Branagh, as both an actor and director, is old-fashioned that way. Even though plenty of people will end up watching Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit on their iPads, or on a tiny square installed in the back of an airline seat, Branagh is steadfast in his love of grandeur. It's as if his goal is to be visible from the moon. And who knows? Maybe he is.