Odds are few people were pining for another entry in the Jack Ryan film series, which has seen Alec Baldwin, Ben Affleck, and, most memorably, Harrison Ford play Tom Clancy’s CIA super-agent. And yet, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” a franchise reboot with Chris Pine stepping into the lead role, is a surprisingly welcome espionage thriller, requiring no loyalty to, or even knowledge of, its mixed bag of predecessors.
The film kicks off during Jack’s college days circa 9/11, jumps forward three years to show his military injury while fighting in Afghanistan, then finally settles into present-day, after he’s been recruited into the CIA by handler Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), and has shacked up with Dr. Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), who nursed him back to health. Working incognito on Wall Street to sniff out terrorist funding, Jack discovers a heinous plot hatched by Viktor Cherevin, a shady Russian businessman played by Kenneth Branagh, who also directed.
Praised as an actor but underrated as a filmmaker, Branagh is adept at both disciplines, offering panache and formidability on both sides of the camera. Though he plays a prickly stereotype, Branagh makes Viktor a rather delectable villain, reminiscent of so many Slavic baddies of the past. And with a tone that’s at once sober and cheeky, he turns what could have been a throwaway actioner into a standout affair that’s briskly smart, yet surprisingly whimsical.
Branagh’s approach helps at virtually every turn, from getting us through verbose debriefing scenes that might bog down the pace to de-cluttering Jack’s relationship to Cathy, who’s uncannily understanding of her partner’s secrecy, then brought into the fold for a remarkable con sequence (Branagh channels Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible,” and that’s a huge compliment). Car chases are swift and compelling, scam specifics are choreographed with great sleekness, and in moments that need to underscore Jack’s dueling competence and inexperience, Pine delivers as a leading man.
Viewers should be wary of any franchise films these days, as most are just out to make a buck with an established name. “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is an exception to the rule.
Three reels out of four
Now playing at area theaters
In director Stacie Passon’s intimate, artfully cohesive “Concussion,” undersung dynamo Robin Weigert (HBO’s “Deadwood”) plays Abby, a lesbian housewife who’s fallen into a middle-age rut, and becomes an escort in an effort to regain her mojo. Embedding Abby in a largely straight and accepting suburban community, Passon makes her heroine’s orientation a non-issue, and focuses instead on the aching ennui so common among so many. An exceptional adult drama.
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