"You're a Marine, that's why you're still alive," a mysterious agency contact tells a rattled Jack Ryan over the phone. Jack is in a bad spot; the young CIA analyst came to Russia investigating some ominous economic patterns and found himself having to brutally dispatch an enemy operative in a luxurious hotel bathroom, mere hours after arriving. In that moment, an agency number-cruncher becomes a legitimate espionage field operative. As Jack's handler, William Harper (Kevin Costner), later tells him, "You're not just an analyst anymore, Jack. You're operational now."
Such is the premise of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Paramount's blockbuster action reboot of the Tom Clancy character, who has been featured on the big screen in four films (The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, The Sum of All Fears), played by three big-name leading men (Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck). The mantle of the late Clancy's hero now rests in the hands of leading man Chris Pine (Star Trek), who will be bringing the character into a modern age of competing action-espionage fare like the revitalized Mission: Impossible and Bond franchises - not to mention the most obvious competitor, the Bourne series.
Paramount screened 15 minutes of footage from Shadow Recruit - which has been through a handful of title changes since its inception - in NYC for a select group of journalists. The footage encompassed the events described in the first paragraph, as well as a later (more humorous) scene involving Jack, William, and Jack's wife Cathy (Keira Knightley), whose headstrong nature has landed her right in the middle of Jack's covert operation. Faced with the moral dilemma of whether to use Cathy as honeypot bait in order to dupe a very bad man, Jack gets a much-needed reminder from William that geo-political warfare is no time for marriage counseling. The fate of the U.S. economy is at stake.
In attendance at the screening was none other than Chris Pine himself, and the actor described how, for him, this film was about capturing the story of how Jack Ryan has to go through the hard induction into spy tradecraft - the lying, the danger, the violence - and how this film tries to depict the effect such work has on a man not yet hardened against it. Director Kenneth Branagh is certainly not shying away from showing the audience just that: without spoiling too much, let's just say that the hotel fight sequence comes as a sudden shock, before evolving into a carefully choreographed dance of vicious brutality. The filmmakers clearly know that Bourne and a new Bond are out there, and they're giving them both a run for their money.
But unlike those run-and-gun modern actioners, Shadow Recruit showed signs of having some classic-style espionage intrigue woven into it, as well. In other words: brains to go along with all the brawn and bullets. As a CIA analyst, Jack is dealing with economic terrorism and threats much more cerebral than the point-and-shoot assignments of his franchise competitors - a fact wonderfully illustrated in one snide comment from Costner's character, who at one point has to remind Jack to explain things, "Keeping in mind that I don't have your PhD."
Then again, a headier plotline is not at all surprising when you notice that Mission: Impossible 1 writer David Koepp is handling the script (newcomer co-writer Adam Cozad is something of an unknown quantity). Koepp's M:I installment in some ways stands as the only real testament to the thrills and twists of the espionage sub-genre, before the entire franchise pushed forward into straight-up action. While Jack Ryan is definitely swimming in both of those pools, it's still nice to know that there will be some substance to go along with all the shootouts and brutal beat downs. At the end of this, Jack Ryan could very well be a big screen staple like he was in the '90s.
...Although, given that the plotline of Shadow Recruit centers around economic terrorism, it's a shame that the title Sum of All Fears was already used up. That sweet little pun sure could've come in handy on this one...
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit will be in theaters on January 17, 2014.