You need spy movies. They make the chaotic world behave for a minute, they allow you to participate in a secret, outlandish, parallel life where unseen monsters are always threatening and, thanks to the spy, always kept at bay. The spy is powerful and makes the bad people unable to bomb us into the sky, and while you watch the spy you are powerful, as well.
If the spy is exciting, stylish, a bit of a sociopath himself, moving through an aesthetically heightened environment, then he's James Bond. If he's something less than Bond then he's Jack Ryan. Which is fine, really.
Unlike Bond, Jack Ryan went away for awhile. Did you miss him? Not much? That's fine, too. Not missing him means rebooting him won't cause anybody to lash out all over the internet. With the possible exception of the guy-cult surrounding The Hunt For Red October, you'd be hard-pressed to find a film fan who thinks of the Jack Ryan movies as their favorites. They're entertainment for their own sake, medium-good filmed espionage pulp birthed in paperbacks bought at airports. That's all this origin story needed to be and, happily, that's exactly what it is.
Young Jack Ryan (Chris Pine, carefully riding the tough/smart tightrope) is a graduate student in economics when 9-11 happens. Fast-forward two years and he's critically injured while serving in Afghanistan. Enter the shadow-recruiter (Kevin Costner, appropriately soft-spoken, dry and spooky), who convinces a rehabbing Ryan to go covert for the government. And after dropping the word "covert," he explains "…so you'll have to keep it to yourself." To a person working on a doctoral degree.
Including that bit of Reader's Digest-sponsored word power building is one of your first clues that, mildly confusing economic terrorism plot aside (Russia wants to crash the U.S. market for good after creating a second 9-11-style attack), this isn't a thinking person's action film.
Not that it matters. Director Kenneth Branagh paints by numbers but at least he does it efficiently and with a sense of excitement and forward momentum. He also leaps to the other side of the camera as the evil Russian villain who viciously kicks his staff, delivers doom-warnings like "America will bleed" and stares at paintings of Napoleon while listening to opera, the favored music of movie miscreants. It's a show, complexity and consequences tossed aside in favor of one-dimensional action, a movie that rides a retro motorcycle powered by comforting, old-fashioned Cold War-isms (clandestine nighttime meetings, sly handoffs of key props, car chases, explosions, hotel room wrestling matches) but also one that makes sure to contemporize itself with sleek surfaces and tense-ish scenes of downloading secrets onto laptops while the clock ticks down to terrorism. And when all you do with yours is watch videos of adorable dogs heating up chicken nuggets, well, that just brings us back to why you need spy movies.