Played by four men in five movies across 24 years, Jack Ryan has been more of a curriculum vitae than a character. Boy Scout, Marine, history professor, CIA analyst, reluctant action hero — he can be taken out of the drawer any time and handed to the next actor in line.
Of course, there’s something about that particular mix — created by Tom Clancy for the best-selling series of Ryan spy novels, which continues five years after the author’s death — that works. Ryan’s combination of brains, brawn and schoolboy rectitude, best embodied in the films by Chris Pine in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, is the carrot that pulls you through the mostly mediocre features.
Now there’s a new Ryan, this time for a 10-episode series on Amazon Prime with the inelegant title-by-committee Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. John Krasinski, cut from the same better-than-average white-male mold as Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Pine, is the latest self-deprecating hero to proclaim “I’m just an analyst” before spotting a plot to end the world as we know it.
And he’s about as convincing at it as anyone. He gives Ryan’s professorial side a credibility that Ford and Affleck couldn’t manage, and his combination of boyishness and physical presence, already used for comedy in The Office, helps give his Ryan a humorous edge that Baldwin and Pine went for with middling success.
Krasinski is the face of Jack Ryan, and he’s a pleasure to watch. The more important name associated with the show, though, is probably that of Carlton Cuse, who created it with Graham Roland and has writing or directing credits on four of the six episodes available for review.
As a creator or producer in recent years of suspense, horror and science-fiction series like Bates Motel, The Strain and Colony, Cuse has a solid record for being more creative in terms of concept, and more thoughtful in terms of character, than the television norm. But his shows also stay solidly within their genre boundaries, and their execution can be formulaic to the point of drab.
Which is what you get with Jack Ryan: a solid spy thriller, with a strong narrative tug and appealing performers (including Wendell Pierce as Ryan’s mentor, James Greer, and Abbie Cornish as his girlfriend, Cathy Mueller), that doesn’t rise to the game-changing heights the new entertainment regime at Amazon might have wanted. (Along the way, it also takes some detours — particularly a subplot involving a guilty drone pilot — that can’t be what anyone had in mind.)
An amusing, or frustrating, characteristic of the Ryan movies was their wilful disregard of continuity, even though Mace Neufeld was a producer of all of them, and is now an executive producer of the Amazon series. They jumped back and forth in time, and the fourth and fifth each rebooted the story, in different ways. Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan continues that tradition, taking Ryan back to his early days as a CIA analyst. Once again, he can save the world for the first time.
Another commonality among the films was their Cold War outlook, even after they departed from the novels — Russia was the evil empire, right through Shadow Recruit. The series breaks away from Clancy’s era, joining the rest of popular culture in focusing on the Middle East and making terrorists the antagonists.
And in keeping with the inflationary tendency of the established Ryan narrative, where the hero’s ordinariness is contrasted with the extreme threats of nuclear annihilation or economic collapse, this new Ryan uncovers a terrorist who’s bidding to be the new Osama bin Laden.
The villain, a Lebanese jihadist named Suleiman, is played by the Arab actor Ali Suliman, and it’s notable that Suliman and the Saudi Arabian actress Dina Shihabi, as Suleiman’s wife, get nearly as much screen time as Krasinski and Pierce. The series goes much further than most American shows in fleshing out the lives and motivations of the non-American characters, not falling back on the usual assertions of religious fanaticism. It’s a refreshing change, even if the depictions of the marginalisation and patriarchal attitudes that drive the Suleimans are pretty formulaic in their own right.
But still, Jack Ryan is Jack Ryan, and he has the same job he always had. The character has been roughened around the edges — he’s willing to manipulate another analyst who has a crush on him, and he now has a past on Wall Street, a sure sign of questionable morality. But in the key moments, he’s still the Boy Scout, which is to say the morally superior American, stretching out his hand to the rest of the world. Some things can’t be rebooted, apparently, no matter how outdated they get.
Don’t miss it!
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is now streaming on Amazon Prime.