Jack Ryan: Muppet Baby — Skillful, familiar "Shadow Recruit" gets the job done

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) 
105 min., rated PG-13.

With Alec Baldwin (1990's "The Hunt for Red October"), Harrison Ford (1992's "Patriot Games" and 1994's "Clear and Present Danger") and Ben Affleck (2002's "The Sum of All Fears") coming before him, Chris Pine is now appointed as the young Jack Ryan. Conceptualized as a revamp of the four-installment Jack Ryan series, based on Tom Clancy's novels, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" is also a prequel or, in the superhero vernacular, an "origin story." Like TV's "Bates Motel," it's set in the present day but comes before its predecessor(s). While that creative choice is odd at first glance and has merely been made to start from scratch for a hopeful franchise, this spy thriller is, on its own terms, old-fashioned, light-footed and excitingly wrought. A summer-style genre movie that ends up being far better than the majority of lousy January dumps, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" isn't a whole lot more than sufficiently entertaining, but entertain it does.

We first find our guy trying to complete his doctorate at the London School of Economics, until September 11th, 2001 happened. Eighteen months later, Jack leaves school to enlist in the Marines and become a lieutenant. He nearly loses his ability to walk after a helicopter ambush in Afghanistan, but a rehab stint and physical therapy student Cathy (Keira Knightley) help him recover. Meanwhile, C.I.A. handler Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) has been watching Jack and recruits him as an analyst. Now, in 2013 (where the movie stays), Jack works undercover on Wall Street as a compliance officer, while keeping his real career from Cathy, who's now a doctor and his fiancée. When he finds firewalled accounts from lucrative Russian companies that could point to terrorist activity, Jack is aided by Harper to go into operational field mode and fly to Moscow. There, the unpredictable Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) is coordinating a conspiracy to crash the U.S. economy, thus beginning the Second Great Depression, and sees analytical-turned-operational Jack as "dangerous." It's a lot of pressure for one "shadow recruit," having to dodge all the assassination attempts, keep his relationship with Cathy off the rocks, and take down Viktor, but he's Jack Ryan.

Written by newcomer Adam Cozad and veteran David Koepp, the boilerplate script works on the levels you expect it to but retreads a lot of standard elements from other political espionage-thrillers. Once the specificity of 9/11 is over, we rush through Jack Ryan's formative years, transitioning from student to Marine, but it gets the job done as a shorthand in understanding Jack's devotion to serve his country. Fortunately, as spryly directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" is ho-hum fluff made with efficiency and adequate brains, even if some of the plot details seem less plausible in retrospect. A fight to the death with Viktor's refrigerator-sized bodyguard in a Moscow hotel bathroom is solidly staged. A set-piece, in which Cathy accompanies Jack to dinner and flirt with the womanizing Viktor as a diversion for pickpocketing and file downloads in his office, is tense and slickly executed. It also helps that Branagh knows how to make computer hacking more exciting and cinematic than it should be. All of the close-calls, elaborate inner workings and deductive reasoning here are inherent in a spy movie, so you either leave get off the ride midway or leave all credibility at the ticket booth and just go with it. It's not until the back half that really errs with action movie stand-bys, such as the hero's female companion becoming a hostage in need of saving and a ticking time bomb, and some convenient plotting involving a sleeper agent in a freshly painted police van is there to move 105 minutes along and advance to a climactic motorcycle chase.

Playing another iconic role, though relatively less so in comparison to Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" reboots, Pine displays charisma without too much smug smirking. His Jack Ryan is an American boy scout who's always on his game and becomes heavy with guilt after killing his first man. Without given any more chances for complexity than that, Pine is still appealing and grounded. As Cathy, Knightley makes the most of her underwritten part and shares a nice chemistry with Pine. Her Cathy is surprisingly understanding and reacts reasonably to Jake's double life. Instead of being written off as an uptight, ball-busting nag or nuisance, she actually gets in on the action and pulls her weight when asked to distract Viktor with not only her beauty but her wit and medical expertise (a conversation about Cirrhosis is a smartly observant touch). Costner (who turned down the leading role during his "Dancing with Wolves" years) is his sturdy self and admirably underplays Thomas Harper, even if there's not much of a character to play. Doing double duty, Branagh is clearly just having fun, casting himself as the ham-loaded garnish of what's very much a Bond villain. As chief baddie Viktor Cherevin, he puts on an eloquent and consistent, if slightly Boris Badenov-ish, Russian accent and never raises his voice, even when he demonstrates evil acts of violence on his own thugs.

A prequel/reboot can be risky, especially if it's the starting game of a franchise, but "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" will more than suffice, which makes rooting for another one not sound so worrisome. It's a skillful, if overly familiar, winter helping of escapism to enjoy while it plays, but it might not be remembered once it's over. Working on the most basic guidelines of a diverting blockbuster, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" shows you a fun time, doesn't make you think too hard, and then lets you go on with your day.

Grade: B -