Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is an enjoyable modern spy film but doesn't bear enough resemblance to the Tom Clancy novels from which it borrows its titular character to be worth the name. The best of all Clancy adaptations, 1990's The Hunt for Red October, was successful in large part because it understood one of the primary pleasures of the author's oeuvre: fetishism for military equipment, vehicles, weapons, and tactics. The boy-like appreciation of guns and planes and tanks is like a Jane's reference edited by Wes Anderson and given a plot by Frederick Forsyth. You're not going to get through one of those great Clancy novels without learning the differences between Los Angeles- and Ohio-class submarines.
The movie version of Patriot Games worked because it captured the peril of the CIA intellectual thrust unwillingly into physical combat. The Sum of All Fears worked because it translated the Clancy way of framing big international dramatic effects coming from humble, small-scale causes. Clear and Present Danger didn't work at all.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit head fakes toward some of these Clancy tropes. It's certainly faithful to the origin story of the character. Ryan (Chris Pine, following in the footsteps of Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck) is a boy scout-type who becomes a man in the Marines before being severely injured in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. In the film, Ryan quits the London School of Economics because of the profound influence of 9/11, making him a kind of Pat Tillman-style true believer who gets chewed up by the War on Terror.
Recuperating at Walter Reed, Ryan catches the eye of a tough but comely med student, Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley). He's sidelined from grunt work, but his intelligence draws the attention of the CIA. His meet-cute handler, Navy Commander Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) wants Ryan to finish his Ph.D., go undercover as a wolf in sheep's clothing on Wall Street, and sniff out terrorists who fund their plots through the financial markets.
Notable in Jack Ryan are the contortions the filmmakers felt they had to go through to make digestible the premise that Ryan works for the CIA, going so far as to acknowledge the Realpolitik controversies of waterboarding and rendition, and making Harper have to say he wasn't involved in any of that. It's a far cry from the CIA of Clancy's Cold War books.
The best of Jack Ryan is Pine's lively presence and the relationship between Ryan and Cathy, which flirts with True Lies before settling into something more domestic and suspenseful. The worst is that Ryan is more Bond and Bourne than he should be — he complains, "I'm just an analyst" when things get dicey, but by the end he might as well be Ethan Hunt.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit