Always necessary in any successful airport novel of the action-espionage genre is the meeting of the Diabolical Earth-Shattering Plan with The One Man Who Can Stop It. And since Jack Ryan, the hero of many such successful tomes by the late Tom Clancy, gets a big-screen reboot in “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” it will come as no surprise that both of those ingredients come into play.
And even if “Shadow Recruit” isn’t up to the recent highs of the 007 series, it’s a zippy and exciting little cloak and dagger tale that’s entertaining enough to make a new Ryan franchise seem like something worth anticipating.
We meet this version of the character — played by Chris Pine, and on the heels of his contributions to the rebooted “Star Trek” movies, we can officially classify him as Hollywood’s go-to Mr. Do-Over — working on a PhD in Economics in London when the attacks of September 11, 2001, take place. (Director Kenneth Branagh uses just enough news footage to make the event essential to the plot without showing so much carnage as to be exploitative.)
A year and a half later, Lt. Jack Ryan is flying in a helicopter over Afghanistan when he’s shot out of the sky and gravely injured. Stateside, Ryan recovers at Walter Reed, where he meets two essential people: Cathy (Keira Knightley, with an endearingly gawky American accent), the medical student who pushes the wounded Marine through physical therapy, and Harper (Kevin Costner), who recruits Ryan into the Central Intelligence Agency.
Harper wants Ryan to return to school, get his doctorate and then go to work on Wall Street, looking for the money that funds terrorist groups. Jump to a decade or so later, when Ryan finds just that, with a Russian firm occluding its accounts just as the U.S. (and the UN) approve a Turkish oil pipeline over Russia’s protests.
Hiding his secret government gig from Cathy, now his girlfriend but not yet his wife, Ryan heads to Moscow to dig deeper, bringing him face to face with steely-eyed financier Cheravin (Branagh, entertainingly hammy), who’s clearly been cooking up something diabolical with a stone-faced higher-up (an uncredited Mikhail Baryshnikov) at the Kremlin.
All of which leads to lots of spy stuff, and Ryan’s first kill, and a break-in at a big glass skyscraper that’s right out of the Shanghai sequence of “Skyfall” and a kidnapping and lots of chasing and even an explosion or two. (Good thing, since the dots in Adam Kozad and David Koepp’s script are frequently tricky to connect.)
Branagh, to his credit, gets more right than wrong with this kind of globe-trotting action: big moments, like Ryan breaking into and then sneaking out of Cheravin’s office as Harper keeps tabs from afar, feel tense and exciting, while the more close-up stuff — the helicopter crash in Afghanistan, a hand-to-hand fight in the back of a van — tends to be shot and edited in confuse-o-vision.
The character of Ryan has always been a tricky balance; you have to believe him in a knife fight and you also have to buy him as someone who turned in a lengthy report about statistical averages, but Pine makes both halves convincing. He brings the physicality of James T. Kirk and the charismatic wonkishness he brought to the Los Angeles stage production of “Farragut North,” playing the character that Ryan Gosling would portray in the film version, “The Ides of March.”
Knightley gets to be more than just The Girl here, and Costner seems to have finally made the transition from the hero to the mysterious man on the park bench who’s got all the answers. These three leads click well, and if the franchise gods smile down on them, they’ll presumably get chased through more foreign capitals in any number of sequels.
As diabolical plots go, Hollywood could do worse.