We all know you can't tell a book by its cover, but can you tell a film by its release date? Where "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," is concerned, that becomes a bit of a trick question.
A glance at the calendar reminds us that this tale of espionage and derring-do starring Chris Pine as CIA analyst Jack Ryan is coming to theaters in January, the traditional elephant burial ground for major studio releases.
But before "The Wolf of Wall Street" dislodged it into 2014, "Jack Ryan" possessed a coveted Christmas slot all its own. So is this film a holiday gem slumming in the low-rent district, or a tawdry impostor stripped of ideas above its station? The answer lies somewhere in between.
As directed by Kenneth Branagh, who costars along with fellow Brit Keira Knightley, this "Jack Ryan" has the additional burden of being the fifth film celebrating the exploits of the wily operative previously played by Alec Baldwin ("The Hunt for Red October"), Harrison Ford ("Patriot Games," "Clear and Present Danger") and Ben Affleck ("The Sum of All Fears").
Compared to those films, as well as the modern gold standard of the genre as represented by the "Bourne" epics, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" comes off as a reasonable facsimile, serviceable but not compelling, something that could pass for the real thing if you're not looking too hard.
Because this is a combination reboot/origins story, as well as the first Ryan story not based directly on one of Tom Clancy's bestselling novels, screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp have taken it upon themselves to fashion an elaborate back story for Ryan. "Shadow Recruit" introduces him as a student at the London School of Economics who patriotically joins the Marines after 9/11 only to be blown out of the sky over Afghanistan.
The silver lining to that near-fatal situation turns out to be twofold. Ryan meets Cathy Muller (Knightley), the comely medical student involved with his rehab at Walter Reed who becomes the love of his life, and he catches the attention of Naval Cmdr. William Harper (Kevin Costner), a steely sort who recruits the young man for the CIA.
Pine, a capable actor who is just as he should be as Captain Kirk in the ongoing rebooting of the "Star Trek" franchise, is clearly intended to be the recipient the torch of the Jack Ryan franchise is being passed to.
Though Pine is acceptable in this latest rebooting, what Cmdr. Harper calls the "Boy Scout on a field trip look" he falls prey to emphasizes the absence of the kind of gravitas that Costner himself employs, and that is a chink in the younger actor's acting armor.
The bulk of "Shadow Recruit's" action picks up 10 years after he signs with the agency. Ryan works as a compliance officer for a major Wall Street firm and, without telling live-in fiancée Cathy, also toils as a numbers cruncher for the CIA. When a clandestine meeting with fellow operatives is necessary, it takes place at Manhattan's Film Forum, providing a nice plug for this estimable movie house.
Smarter and more diligent than most, Ryan discovers that the pesky Russians his firm is doing business with seem to be hiding enormous amounts of money. The CIA wants him to go to Moscow and audit everyone's books, a situation that, in one of the film's less convincing plot strands, makes fiancée Cathy nervous enough to show up in the Russian capital as well.
It will come as no surprise that those Russians do have something underhanded up their sleeve. Ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov has an uncredited cameo as a nefarious government minister, but the key culprit is a poetry-loving plutocrat named Viktor Cherevin, a juicy part that director Branagh has kept for himself.
Branagh does an excellent job as the dour, fanatical Cherevin, a man with more secrets than St. Basil's Cathedral has onion domes, and his machinations are so threatening to American interests that the formerly desk-bound Ryan is forced to go operational in a big way.
Though the considerable action in "Shadow Warrior's" second half is briskly done, there is no shaking the feeling that Branagh and his cast are a kind of an espionage film B team, capable of mild diversion but nothing more.
'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence and intense action, and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: In general releaseCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun