There is a mission in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and it is impossible.
It would not be difficult to believe that the Jack Ryan script started out as one for Mission: Impossible, particularly since it was co-written by David Koepp, who did the first (and still best) M:I movie.
There's a shadowy operative who goes undercover in Moscow, supported by a team of colleagues surveilling him from an unmarked van, a bunch of computer mumbo-jumbo that peaks with someone downloading something or other just in the nick of time, a plot to plunge the world into economic chaos, a love interest who has no idea what her man is up to, a heavily accented villain, and a distinguished elder statesman who mentors our young hero.
All of which is to say that Jack Ryan has a tough time distinguishing itself from any number of other, similar movies (at the end, when he introduces himself as "Ryan, Jack Ryan," is that meant to signal to us that there are lots of Jack Ryans, just as there are lots of James Bonds, or is it just a joke that falls flat?).
Kenneth Branagh's direction has no personality, nothing to distinguish the movie from any of those other Bonds, Bournes, Dicks and Harrys. The story also isn't very clever, which becomes painfully clear in a scene in which we're supposed to be seeing Ryan put together all of the pieces of the puzzle, but what it really seems he's doing is pulling guessed-at clues out of thin air.
Still, there are pleasures to be had in Jack Ryan. Even if it does feel anonymous, it looks sleek and elegant, with glittering shots of New York and Moscow and a pace that never flags.
The script has flashes of wit, as in a moment when Ryan tells his distinguished elder statesman (Kevin Costner) where a bomber is about to strike: "He's in Pennsylvania."
Comes the snappy reply: "Nobody blows up Pennsylvania."
It has been beautifully cast: Chris Pine projects intelligence and agility as the mysteriously youthful Ryan (a role previously played by Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Alec Baldwin), Keira Knightley has a playful lightness as his squeeze, and Costner's dry wit is perfect for the role of a guy who probably wishes he were still doing Ryan's job.
The one weak link in the cast is, surprisingly, its most distinguished performer: Branagh. Besides directing, he plays the Russian Donald Trump, a role that seems to promise the sort of merry overacting Laurence Olivier smacked his lips over in the hammy senior phase of his career. But Branagh plays it straight, depriving the movie of the dumb fun of a bad guy who's really, really bad.
Even so, it's great to have those dastardly Russians back as evildoers. Like fashion's most popular colors, the nationalities of villains go in and out of style: Chechens and teal one year, Saudis and emerald green the next. This year, though, it seems that Russian maniacs and mauve are back in a very big way.