The best moment in "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" allows the director and crucial supporting player Kenneth Branagh to set cars and guns aside for a brief, unblinking glare in a two-person scene at a dinner table. Branagh plays a heroin-addicted Russian terrorist in this routine franchise reboot, and when he's at dinner in Moscow with Ryan's fiancee, played by Keira Knightley, he's being duped into believing he's making meaningful progress in the sniveling-seduction department.
Then he gets word via text that it's all a setup. Chris Pine plays the CIA analyst portrayed in previous films by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck, and Pine's Ryan is ransacking the terrorist's files digitally elsewhere while putting the fiancee at risk. (That old plot development again.) Once he learns of the deception, Branagh fixes Knightley with his best, cruelest, tightest-lipped Laurence Olivier stare. And because Branagh is directing the scene as well as playing in it, he allows the camera to take an extra second or two to register the moment, before getting back to the workmanlike film at hand.
"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" has plenty of action, almost all of it staged and edited in the manner of a Paul Greengrass "Bourne" movie (hand-held frenzy, without the Greengrass spatial clarity). This is a Jack Ryan prequel, introducing our hero as an American grad student at the London School of Economics, driven to serve as a Marine once 9/11 changes the course of modern history. Two years later his helicopter is shot down over Afghanistan. In rehab at Walter Reed medical center back home, he meets the doctor (Knightley, doing her flattest, nowhere-in-particular American dialect) who helps him get into action-hero shape for the rest of the picture.
The middle of the film, the Moscow portion, works best. Kevin Costner settles comfortably into a rumpled authority figure role as Ryan's overseer, who always has his boy's back. Frustratingly, though, the screenplay by Adam Cozad and David Koepp devolves into scenes of Ryan solving a ridiculous number of riddles in record time while tracking a different, related terrorist and thwarting a heinous attack on our home soil.
The action climax, a mess of vehicular near-homicides and hand-to-hand brutalities, reminds you that Branagh (though he did well enough with the first "Thor" picture) hasn't much facility for high-velocity violence. He's more into the quiet, nasty bits. "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," well acted up and down, feels caught halfway between being an idiotic spy picture for adolescents, and a reasonably grown-up thriller for reasonably grown-up grown-ups. The latter isn't the target demographic for the average franchise re-launch. But that's what the film is, at heart: an average franchise re-launch.
"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" - 2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and intense action, and brief strong language)
Running time: 1:45