Hollywood always goes through its trends, but it’s becoming increasingly clear we live in the era of the “series reboot.” From Spider-Man to 007, we see tired characters and properties revived with a younger cast, fresher digital effects and about a gazillion more dollars more poured into advertising.
Still, trying this maneuver with the Jack Ryan franchise was always going to be tricky. First off, the superspy was born in the pages of the best-selling Tom Clancy novels from the 1980s, of which Cold War intrigue was an intrinsic part. Secondly, there never really was a Jack Ryan franchise per se — the first film to feature the character was “The Hunt for Red October” (1990), where Alec Baldwin in the Ryan role was a distant second billing to Sean Connery. Harrison Ford scored two hits in a row as Ryan in the early ’90s with “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger,” and then nothing until an attempted reboot in 2002 with “The Sum of All Fears,” which made the fatal error of putting “Gigli”-era Ben Affleck in the lead.
Kenneth Branagh is a director known best for his Shakespeare adaptations, but he went popcorn with “Thor” and continues that here. Working off a script “based on characters created by Tom Clancy,” Branagh tries to update Ryan from the Cold War to the “War on Terror,” but half-heartedly: the bad guys are still Russkies, and everyone seems intent on spying like it’s 1989.
The Ryan “origin story” — essential to any series reboot — takes all of about 10 minutes. A student at the London School of Economics, Ryan (Chris Pine, star of the “Star Trek” reboot) patriotically enlists in the Marines after 9/11. Injured badly in Afghanistan, he recovers through sheer determination, falls for his physical therapist, Cathy (Keira Knightley), and is recruited as a CIA analyst by the shadowy Cmdr. Harper (Kevin Costner). Embedded covertly in a Wall Street firm to monitor international financial transactions, he uncovers a Russian plot to manipulate currencies and crash the U.S. dollar.
The threat pretty much consists of your typical spook film gobbledygook: They’re going to do the whatchamacallit with the thingamajig and the entire American economy with collapse! That’s not much of a threat, really, when you consider that American bankers and brokers managed to do just that in 2007, and no one went to jail for it. To give the film additional drama and an appropriately post-9/11 vibe, you guessed it, there’s also a plot to blow up New York City, specifically Wall Street. (Of course, if the bad guys did succeed in this, maybe half the audience would cheer, but let’s not go there.)
Branagh handles the action sequences competently enough, but he hams it up terribly playing the Russian oligarch bad guy Cherevin with an accent seemingly lifted from “Rocky and Bullwinkle” character Boris Badenov. The movie clicks along reliably enough, but can’t seem to come up with anything original or memorable to set it apart from Jason Bourne or any other contemporary action-thriller. The biggest problem may be Pine, who comes off as a boy-band member wondering what the hell a gun is doing in his hand. Knightley, meanwhile, is clearly just cashing a check so she can go off and do a few more interesting independent films.