Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (US - BD RA)
Gabe can't quite get on board with the second Jack Ryan franchise reboot...
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan was among the perfect matinee heroes to closeout the Cold War era. In Hunt for Red October (1990), he appeared in the form of Alec Baldwin and helped a Soviet submarine captain and his crew defect. Then, he reappeared in the form of a grizzled, finger-waving Harrison Ford and reluctantly battled the Irish Republic Army ( Patriot Games, 1992) and Columbian drug lords ( Clear and Present Danger, 1994) – villains tailor-made for a period where the nation’s enemies were not so easily defined. The character was rebooted again eight years later as Ben Affleck in Sum of All Fears (2002). Sum of All Fears served its purpose as escapist entertainment for an audience reeling from the effects of the 9/11 attacks, but the Nazi villains were irrelevant (the bad guys were Muslim extremists in Clancy’s books) and Jack Ryan seemed insignificant following the newly dubbed War on Terror. Outmoded or not, Paramount Pictures was still committed to the franchise and struggled to bring Ryan back to the big screen for the next decade (including a false start under director Sam Raimi). They eventually settled on another reboot, entitled Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
Shadow Recruit desperately attempts to reinstate the franchise’s post-9/11 relevance by cramming the events into the pre-title sequence. The film opens with a young Jack Ryan seeing the September 11th attacks on television while attending school in London. Cut to 18 months later – Student Ryan was so moved by the attacks that he has joined the Marines. Then this compacted origin story really starts to veer into parody. While helping a new recruit fasten his seatbelt, Nice Guy Ryan’s helicopter is hit by a missile and crashes in the Afghani desert. He’s rushed to a MASH unit, where Exposition Nurse tells Exposition Doctor that Hero Ryan rescued his fellow soldiers despite a broken back. Cut to a rehabilitation clinic months later, where Sad Ryan struggles to walk without a cane. A fair but firm medical student (Keira Knightley) ‘tough-loves’ him through treatment, while CIA director Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) looks on from a high vantage point. Harper discusses the former Marine’s condition with Exposition Doctor #2 and eventually approaches Sad Ryan. Cut to 10 years later – Ryan has a job at the CIA and is dating the fair but firm medical student. Ultimately, almost none of this information is important to the film’s plot – it’s 12 minutes wasted on explaining why Jack Ryan is a good person and how he got his job in the CIA. In Hunt for Red October, Alec Baldwin’s Ryan is introduced as an analyst that has fallen into a situation beyond his training. We don’t need to know exactly why he decided to join the C.I.A., how he hurt his back, why his boss decided to recruit him, or how he met his future wife – we just need to know he’s over his head.
Once we get past this worthless pre-credit exposition, Adam Cozad and David Koepp’s screenplay falls more comfortably into a prototypical espionage story – something about Ryan uncovering a Russian plot to crash the US economy with stock trading and false flag terrorist attacks – one that fits the ‘90s-friendly mode the character was born into. They squander a lot of goodwill with an annoying subplot where Ryan has to lie to Dr. Girlfriend about his job (she assumes he’s having an affair, because that’s what all women in these movies assume, not because it’s compelling), but does a good job selling a story that is just complex enough to keep the audience guessing without overwhelming them with convoluted subplots (and that Dr. Girlfriend stuff eventually serves a narrative purpose). It’s not outstanding work, nor does it feature any surprises, but there aren’t any major plot holes and the script feels like it is a proper modern extension of the original series.
Kenneth Branagh’s place in the director’s chair is confusing, especially since he was brought on as director before he agreed to star as the film’s villain. Until he was hired to usher Thor to fruition by Marvel Studios, Branagh had almost never worked as a director for hire, but on personal projects that fed his artistic interests (these were, in most cases, Shakespeare adaptations). Even in cases like Thor, Dead Again, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where he wasn’t credited with any writing or producing, he had pre-production input from the start. Shadow Recruit went through much of its pre-production under director Jack Bender (most well-known for his television credits), who left when the film when production was put on hold for Chris Pine’s appearance on Star Trek Into Darkness. Branagh was a last minute addition – an unenviable position for any filmmaker to be in and there’s almost nothing about Shadow Recruit that relates to his artistic sensibilities. Not unexpectedly, his direction is route and detached from any of the passion seen in his best films. The look is flat, the technical achievements are undistinguished, and the artistic flourishes are few and far between. Branagh skates by until he gets to an action sequence; at which point he and his editors fail at a Paul Greengrass impression. The pacing of these scenes is pretty sharp (outside of the crappy opening, the film moves very well), but the shaking camera and quick-cut editing dulls the impact and, frankly, makes these likely expensive scenes look cheap.
Of course, being Kenneth Branagh, he does manage to pull good performances from his actors, but his gift for casting roles seems to have escaped him. Kevin Costner aside, miscasting is a major issue for the film (though I do have problems with Costner’s casting, because his character effectively replaces James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman’s characters from the other four movies and it would’ve been nice to have at least one minority in a leading role here). Chris Pine buckles under the expectations set by his other franchise figure, Captain Kirk, weighs heavily on this performance. Pine plays the two characters with different temperaments – Kirk is cocky and sardonic, Ryan is tentative and genuine – but there’s no escaping the similarities in the two films’ origin story structures and character arcs. Perhaps such comparisons will fade as Pine’s career extends to more non-blockbuster material. Knightly does an admirable job with an absolutely thankless role that requires her to nag the hero, then act as damsel in distress when the film requires another action set-piece. Branagh himself is amusing as the big bad, Viktor Cherevin, but often for his ‘moose and squirrel’ Russian accent and has easy chemistry with Knightly during their scenes.
According to specs, Branagh and Thor cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos shot Shadow Recruit using both 35mm and Red Epic digital HD cameras. Based on the minor grain artefacts that appear on this 1080p, 2.40:1 image, it appears that the bulk of the movie was shot using film (wide shots of location settings seem to have been shot digitally), but the over-indulgent colour-grading makes me think they would’ve saved time if they stuck to digital. The orange and teal (sometimes yellow and ice-pack blue) extremes aren’t as obnoxious as something, like A Good Day to Die Hard, but natural hues (specifically skin tones) are pushed out in favor of the glowing, weird colours. The contrast levels are hiked pretty high, creating some graying/bluing blacks and overblown highlights, but these, like the ugly palette, are stylistic choices, not issues with the HD transfer quality. Besides, the colours themselves are very nicely separated and quite vivid when necessary. The film source is relatively unaffected by digital augmentations. There’s plenty of fine grain that increases and decreases based on lighting, along with other minor emulsion artefacts. In terms of detail and clarity, Zambarloukos’ photography is divided between the occasionally muddy, diffused, and dark interiors (the darker, the grainier) and the super-sharp, complex exteriors. The darkest and orangest scenes have issues with blocking, similar to those that showed up on Paramount’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol Blu-ray. Shallow focus often conceals the backgrounds with blur, but close-up textures and establishing shot patterns are nice and crisp.
Shadow Recruit is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English. The sound design is spectacular during the action sequences (more on that in a tick), but is surprisingly centric during dialogue-heavy sequences. Ambient noise is either non-existent (the whole movie is pretty quiet) or situated in the middle behind the vocal effects. Only the vaguest crowd noise seems to escape the center channel vacuum (even rain effects barely bleed). Those action scenes are quite aurally vibrant, though. Highlights include the directionally busy opening helicopter crash, a punchy fist-fight that ends in a stylishly muted drowning, and the super-bassy van-versus-motorcycle climax, which itself features a very wet fist-fight and some very crunchy vehicular smash-ups. Composer Patrick Doyle’s (a Branagh regular) music does its job without featuring any memorable themes. The music is occasionally overpowering during melodramatic sequences, but is very well-integrated with the punchier action.
- Commentary with director Kenneth Branagh & producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura – This is a relatively intellectual, full-bodied track that is strongly led by Branagh, who sometimes interrupts poor Bonaventura mid-thought. Branagh also has a habit of rambling through descriptions of on-screen action, but integrates it pretty well with the more valuable information about the movie’s themes and technical processes. This is an enjoyable track with very little downtime.
- Jack Ryan: The Smartest Guy in the Room (13:40, HD) – A look at the long process of bringing the franchise back to the big screen with the cast and crew. It includes scenes from the other movies for the sake of comparison.
- Sir Kenneth Branagh: The Tsar of Shadow Recruit (9:50, HD) – An extended back-patting session for the director, including behind-the-scenes footage.
- Jack Ryan: A Thinking Man of Action (5:20, HD) – On the film’s stunts and action.
- Old Enemies Return (21:10, HD) – A more in-depth look at the real-life politics that inspired the use of a Russian villain in the film. It includes interviews with the filmmakers and a series of experts on international relations and history.
- Deleted & extended scenes with optional commentary by Branagh & di Bonaventura (5:00, HD)
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit recovers from its disastrous beginnings to be a relatively entertaining mediocrity. Fans of the previous films will likely enjoy its familiarity. Paramount’s Blu-ray suffers minor image issues that seem to be the result of aggressively digitally augmented original film material, but has a solid 7.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack and a decent collection of extras that include an informative commentary track.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 10th June 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, French, and Portuguese
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese
Extras: Director and Producer Commentary, Jack Ryan: The Smartest Guy in the Room, Sir Kenneth Branagh: The Tsar of Shadow Recruit, Jack Ryan: A Thinking Man of Action, DVD Copy, UltraViolet Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightley
Genre: Action, Adventure and Thriller
Length: 105 minutes
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