Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2013)

Tom Clancy's fictional CIA analyst Jack Ryan gets a fifth film outing in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, this time played by a new actor in Chris Pine.

The film begins in 2001 with the young Jack Ryan studying at the London School of Economics, presented in this film as a sort of leafy parkland campus in central London. Galvanised by the 9/11 terror attacks, Ryan decides to serve his country and enlists in the US Marines. He is later injured when the helicopter he is travelling in is hit by a missile strike in Afghanistan in 2003. He subsequently undergoes rehabilitation at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland, where he meets attractive medical student Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley). 

Around the same time, Ryan is also approached by the CIA in the form of Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who has been impressed by Ryan's exciting works on "Liquidity Events in Post-Soviet Markets" and his reports on Russian traffic patterns. Apparently. Ryan is then recruited by the CIA to go undercover as an analyst on Wall Street, where he will investigate covert funding of terrorist organisations. 

When he finds suspicious activity involving Russian interests, Ryan is sent by his firm to Moscow, where he meets generic Russian bad guy Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) and uncovers a plot to crash the world financial system.

Chris Pine riding motorbike
Chris Pine in action as Jack Ryan

Jack Ryan was first played on film by Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October in 1990. In that film he played second fiddle to Sean Connery as a Soviet submarine captain defecting to the West. In two sequels Baldwin was replaced by a more high profile star, Harrison Ford, in Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994). A fourth film, The Sum of All Fears, recast the role with Ben Affleck in 2002.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is probably what we must call a reboot, not only recasting the role of Ryan but, as is now traditional, giving us a half-hearted origins story too. Unfortunately, the film doesn't owe much to the writing of Tom Clancy and doesn't even use one of his plots. It lacks the detailed techno-thriller style that Clancy was known for and the result is simply a generic action film. 

The script was written by Adam Cozad, who later wrote the screenplay for The Legend of Tarzan (2016), and prolific scriptwriter David Koepp (of Jurassic Park, Death Becomes Her, Mission: Impossible, Spiderman, and many others). Several false starts had been made in the attempt to get a Jack Ryan film series going again in the 2000s. An existing script by Cozad called "Dubai" was apparently used as the basis for this film, being picked up and repurposed into a Jack Ryan thriller. At one point it was simply and unoriginally retitled "Moscow" after changing the story's locations, before eventually emerging as Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Jack Bender, a regular director of the TV series Lost, was originally intended to direct, before the more high profile Kenneth Branagh was brought in to both co-star in and direct the film. The film's producers include Mace Neufeld, who had also co-produced the first Jack Ryan film The Hunt for Red October.

Kevin Costner sitting alongside Chris Pine
Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) with his recruit Jack Ryan (Chris Pine)

Having arguably been miscast as Captain Kirk in 2009's Star Trek, Chris Pine is now arguably miscast again as another, albeit less familiar, screen character in Jack Ryan. The intelligence analyst who was previously portrayed as being regularly, if reluctantly, drawn into spy thriller plots is now just a kind of generic cool spy, a 'B' movie James Bond or Jason Bourne, who just needs to find his feet and get used to killing the bad guys. 

Shadow Recruit is ultimately a rather shallow thriller and its plotting is not very plausible, with Ryan uncovering a grand scheme to cause a second Great Depression. This is being orchestrated by patriotic Russian nationalist villains, although it's not clear why exactly, or if they are acting for the Russian government or not. Another Great Depression wouldn't seem likely to do anyone much good, but Ryan states that such a depression will have far worse effects on the US than Russia, because Russia has its oil reserves to cover any losses. This shows a lot more confidence in Russia and the strength of its economy than most people would venture. 

The storyline does, though, date the film as very much a post-2008 one. As with the 2009 remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, a terrorist attack or a heist are no longer considered big enough for movie villains. After the 2008 financial crisis, they now have to be involved in underhand financial chicanery as well. 

Kenneth Branagh mostly looks bored in his role as a standard issue Russian bad guy with a ropy accent. Intended to be sinister, Branagh comes across more like unintentionally comical in the scenes when his character is required to appear threatening.

Chris Pine and Keira Knightley
Jack Ryan with Cathy (Keira Knightley)

Another British player, Keira Knightley, has been given a fairly thankless role as Ryan's fiancée Cathy. Her part is particularly problematic, as at first she simply interferes with the action and then later on is shoehorned into the plot, turning up unannounced to visit Ryan in Moscow. Ryan's life as a spy is kept secret from her, so she believes that he is simply the Wall Street financial analyst that he appears to be. The idea of the innocent wife who doesn't realise that her husband is secretly a spy is more like the stuff of a comedy film plot and, indeed, it was treated exactly that way by James Cameron in True Lies in 1994.  

After meeting Ryan, Branagh's character agrees to take him and his fiancée out to dinner, for no obvious reason other than plot expediency. Fortunately, he takes a fancy to Cathy, who has a handy love of Russian literature for them to talk about and bond over, while Ryan feigns drunkenness so that he can sneak off and break into Branagh's office. 

Ryan, of course, is the agent chosen to break into the office building, despite the fact that he is completely inexperienced in this type of work and apparently untrained. Meanwhile, Kevin Costner is on hand as CIA chief Harper to act as a sniper and shoot at anyone who comes after Ryan as he flees the building. The CIA must be seriously starved of funding if everyone really does have to do double duty in this way and if it's relying on finance analysts to carry out its covert activities. 

Branagh's direction shows a few moments of sloppiness and the film is no more than competently directed, but it's generally slick enough in a generic and forgettable way. This is certainly the hired hand Branagh of recent years, turning out formula product for the studios, not the promising young director and award winner who redefined Shakespeare's Henry V on film in 1989.

Kenneth Branagh in Moscow in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) in Moscow with assorted goons

The film has one moderately interesting moment, when a fight scene suddenly starts unexpectedly and without any warning. The scene ends with the reasonably graphic and equally unexpectedly brutal drowning of the attacker. Although this scene does suggest that Jack Ryan is not a very good intelligence operative, as he should be trying to get information from assailants, rather than brutally killing them. 

The script's plotting is very contrived and unlikely and the film is not very engaging, probably because it tries to be relatively grounded without being very plausible. What's left is an ill-developed and unlikely plot married to increasingly improbable action. The film ends with Jack Ryan given the honour of meeting the US President, who is so sanctified that he must be kept off screen, a moment of faux patriotism and awe that shows the film was definitely made before 2016. 

Despite being set mainly in Russia and the US, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was mostly filmed in the UK, in London and Liverpool and at Pinewood and Leavesden studios. This is not immediately obvious, although there is a lack of local colour in the Moscow scenes and the set piece Russian action sequences all take place at night. Coincidentally, Liverpool also stood in for a bit of Moscow in The Hunt for Red October in 1990.

Critical reaction to Shadow Recruit was not that enthusiastic and the box office was weak, probably not helped by the poster's unoriginal tagline "Trust no one". The film made $50.6 million in the US, which didn't even match its $60 million production budget, and an underwhelming $135.5 million worldwide. The hoped-for film series didn't therefore materialise, although few people can really have been that disappointed. 

Compared to the meaty thrillers The Hunt for Red October and Clear and Present Danger, the anaemic Shadow Recruit is an obvious comedown. The prominent role of Ryan's wife Cathy would probably have compromised any subsequent Jack Ryan series anyway, particularly as Keira Knightley's casting would seem to require her character to become involved in the plots to what would seem like an improbable degree. The Jack Ryan character was taken up by TV instead in the Amazon series Jack Ryan, starring John Krasinski as Ryan.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Year: 2013
Genre: Spy thriller
Country: USA
Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast Chris Pine (Jack Ryan), Kevin Costner (Thomas Harper), Keira Knightley (Cathy Muller), Kenneth Branagh (Viktor Cherevin), Lenn Kudrjawizki (Constantin), Alec Utgoff (Aleksandr Borovsky), Peter Andersson (Dimitri Lemkov), Elena Velikanova (Katya), Nonso Anozie (Embee Deng), Seth Ayott (Teddy Hefferman), Colm Feore (Rob Behringer), Gemma Chan (Amy Chang), Aleksandar Aleksiev, Andrew Byron & Derek Lea (Cherevin's bodyguards), Andy Butcher (Cherevin's guest driver), Lloyd Bass (Harper's driver), Marat Berdyyev (Sorokin's bodyguard)

Screenplay Adam Cozad, David Koepp, based on characters created by Tom Clancy  Producers Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Mace Neufeld, David Barron, Mark Vahradian  Cinematography Haris Zambarloukos  Production designer Andrew Laws  Supervising art director Stuart Kearns  Editor Martin Walsh  Music Patrick Doyle  2nd unit director / Stunt co-ordinator Vic Armstrong  Costume designer Jill Taylor  Visual effects supervisor Matt Johnson

Running time 105 mins  Colour Deluxe

Production company Paramount Pictures / Skydance Productions  Distributor Paramount Pictures


  1. I agree, this was just a very mediocre movie. The problem is that Hunt for Red October, Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games were smart movies. Shadow Recruit is just generic.

    I really don't know what happened to Kenneth Branagh. I used to like him in the 90s. Watched all his Shakespeare films.
    Though he is a good actor obviously, there are roles that seem to be out of his depth. He and his accent were pretty bad in Wild, Wild West.
    And now he's bastardizing Agatha Christie. I'll say no more.

    1. The strange thing is that they made this when they have all those Tom Clancy novels they could adapt.

      Branagh's Henry V was great and I'm interested in his version of Hamlet. But his Shakespeare films ran out of steam eventually and his remake of Sleuth was a disaster. After that he went into hired hand mode. He's won praise recently for Belfast, so that seems to be a return to form. It's a more personal film though, so I don't know if he'll be able to repeat it.

    2. I totally (thankfully) forgot about Sleuth. As opposed to many other I really enjoyed Much Ado About Nothing. Haven't seen that in ages.

      On a different note, have you seen The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)? Haven't seen it yet, but the cinematography looks great.

      Talk about another bad remake, like Sleuth. Steve Martin's Pink Panther.

    3. The Coens one? No. I've seen the Justin Kurtzel one. I'm not that enthusiastic about taking these stories out of their historical context. I know they do it in the theatre all the time, but that's because the plays have been performed so many times before. It was Branagh who started this with his 90s films, and then it was picked up by everyone else with modern dress or new settings, and we've got used to it. The most radical thing now would be to just do Shakespeare in a period setting with Shakespearean actors wearing doublet and hose.

      That Pink Panther remake was bad, but I think we were all expecting that weren't we? And didn't it get a sequel?! There's no accounting for taste.

      Sleuth was only interesting in that it seemed like a textbook way not to do a remake, and that it marked the end of Branagh's run of taking plays and then jazzing them up with random changes. Relocating the story to an ultra-modern building showed that he didn't understand it at all.

      For some reason there was a rash of remakes of Michael Caine films in that period (Get Carter, Sleuth, Alfie, Italian Job) to an extent I don't remember for any other actor.

  2. This is a new one on me. I'm not moved by your write-up to track it down, but I enjoyed reading your take on it!

    1. Thanks. I don't think it's one you need to worry about seeking out ...

  3. I really liked the first three movies. The Sum of All Fears wasn't great, but it was better than I expected (this is coming from someone who can't stand Ben Affleck), but I hated Shadow Recruit. It didn't feel like a Jack Ryan movie.

    1. No, it didn't. The Sum of All Fears was at least somewhat interesting, but there's just not much substance to Shadow Recruit. It seems to have got some OK reviews at the time, I think because people forgot Ryan wasn't just meant to be a Jason Bourne clone.

  4. I didn't like it either. The first three Ryan movies are pretty good. The fourth film, The Sum of All Fears, isn't as good as the first three, but it does have its moments. Shadow Recruit killed my interest in the franchise.


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