Above all else, what Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit teaches us - if we really needed to be taught it, though we do not - is that Kenneth Branagh the director has an unstoppable infatuation with Kenneth Branagh the actor. Kevin Costner gets introduced coming up behind the camera and in profile. Keira Knightley just meanders into a shot. Chris Pine - the movie's star - is introduced in a wholly run-of-the-mill close-up. But Sir Kenneth Branagh is introduced in a splashy back-of-the-head shot where he punches and kicks a guy to death, flashes his Russian mafia tattoos at the camera, and only then does the film permit us a close-up of his face, framed dramatically and intensely, to make it clear that this man is someone we are very excited to stare at. Later on, he strides manfully out of a church, backlit and perfectly centered, in what is unmistakably the most dramatic image of the whole movie. Branagh on Branagh. Sounds like a sex act, because that's what it is.

It's not just the framing, either; the actors, in creating their characters, are helped not at all by their director in finding anything to make the patchwork script by Adam Cozad (author of the original script, Moscow) and David Koepp (brought on to Jack Ryan it up) feel like it involves credible human beings. The most ill-served is Knightley, who I genuinely believe, perhaps against the evidence, to be a worthwhile actress; she has to contend with both the achingly stock role of the nagging, worried girlfriend who doesn't realise that her lover is an action hero, played completely straight, and also with an American accent that completely destroys her. I did not know, till watching Knightley in Shadow Recruit, that there could be such a thing at somebody who has to strain so hard to put on an accent that you can literally see their jaw lock up and the tendons in their neck bulge out. In comparison, everybody looks good, though Pine has never been this hollow and asleep beneath his disposable good looks, and Branagh, blessed with an indulgent director, opens up with a cartoonivisk Rooshky accent that's hammy enough to bring its own toast, orange juice, and fried eggs along. If it wasn't for Costner's pleasantly gruff CIA handler being tart and folksy in a moderately appealing way, there'd be not a single thing standing between Shadow Recruit and total unwatchability.

I mean nothing. Not the action, which is inordinately relaxed and low impact (the first of two car chase scenes is one of the most laconic I have ever seen filmed, the latter shot mostly from inside vehicles and thus deprived of a chance to show off its choreography). Maybe the spy thrills, which rely for all of most of their effect on Patrick Doyle's decently bombarding score, though in the case of a computer hacking scene, that very nearly ends up being sufficient. Certainly not the story, which is a giddy, nonsensical pile of contrivances hoping the viewer will hear "economic warfare" and assume that the rest makes sense, even if the rest involves propping up that old chestnut, The Specter of Superpower Russia, and praying that we'll buy Russians as implacable villains more than two decades after the Soviet Union collapsed.

The film's main purpose, anyway, isn't to provide a credible geopolitical narrative, but a backstory for young Jack Ryan (Pine), an American economics student in London driven to join the Marines as a result of 9/11, wounded horribly in Afghanistan, and recruited by CIA agent Thomas Harper (Costner) as he recovers. The bright analyst of 1990's The Hunt for Red October and three subsequent films made over the next 12 years is to be found nowhere in the callow youth presented here, who has a certain instinct for ferreting out plots, but also has a pronounced tendency to get extremely lucky in plot-convenient moments, which probably has less to do with Pine's vacant performance and more to do with Shadow Recruit not taking its plot from any particular novel by process geek Tom Clancy (who died while the film was in post-production, and has had the film dedicated to his memory, which seems like a pretty mean thing to do to dead guy, if you ask me), and thus suffering from the lack of his attention to CIA mechanics.

The new movie has little to do with any kind of clever spying, and everything to do with the most generic sub-Bourne activity, only denuded of its most overtly action-oriented shading because Jack Ryan is the "thinking spy", or some such; it feels less like a Red October/Clear and Present Danger style renunciation of generic elements, and more like they just couldn't afford them. The whole thing is glossy and bland-looking, shot by Haris Zambarloukos in the same late-'90s computer-chic shiny greys that he and Branagh used on Sleuth, if you can bring yourself to remember that that existed. It traffics in spritely xenophobia and racism (as part of a franchise where Ryan's boss was a black guy four times out of four, the only non-white person this time around is killed horribly in his second scene), has nothing interesting to do with its sole prominent female besides have Knightley look pouty and happy in alternation - but then, it has nothing interesting to do with any of its characters. Only its over-the-top Russian bad guy, and even he is interesting only in the negative sense, in that he is broad, unbelievable, and hilariously campy in a film without a camp bone in its body. The film is insulting to the viewer hoping for a decent spy thriller, idiotically written, and worst of all, dull - I wouldn't have dreamed it would be possible for a Jack Ryan movie to end up worse than the leaden Ben Affleck vehicle The Sum of All Fears, but Shadow Recruit doesn't just fail to rise above that bar, it ecstatically dives under it like Esther Williams on a cocaine binge.

Reviews in this series
The Hunt for Red October (McTiernan, 1990)
Patriot Games (Noyce, 1992)
Clear and Present Danger (Noyce, 1994)
The Sum of All Fears (Robinson, 2002)
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Branagh, 2014)