JACK RYAN Review: Tom Clancy’s Boy Wonder Returns
Alec Baldwin. Harrison Ford. Ben Affleck. Chris Pine. John Krasinski.
Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan has taken on many job titles throughout the fourteen novels the staunchly-Republican author penned before his death in 2013 (after which, Ryan appeared in six posthumous tomes, with a seventh supposedly on the way this fall). A Roman Catholic Boy Scout and son of a Baltimore police detective and nurse, the former Marine was injured in a helicopter accident before enrolling in the United States Naval Academy, and was subsequently recruited to be an Analyst in the Central Intelligence Agency. Due to circumstances that would take a whole series of articles to detail, Ryan was eventually promoted to CIA Field Operative, Deputy Director, U.S. National Security Advisor, Vice President and then (following the horrific 9/11-predicting attacks in Clancy’s '94 thriller Debt of Honor), ascended to President, where he'd retire after one term, only to re-emerge, seek office, and win a second. He eventually had a son (Jack Ryan Jr.) who followed – much to Jack's chagrin – in his dutiful footsteps as a member of the clandestine "Campus", a nefarious black ops sect of the American Intel Community.
As a character, Ryan was distinctly a product of his author's worldview and times – with many of the novels being dedicated to Republican luminaries, including Ronald Reagan – and thus easily lent himself to several testosterone-fueled early '90s action cinema staples, such as 1990's The Hunt For Red October (where Baldwin's take on the CIA Analyst boarded a rogue Typhoon-class Russian sub), 1992's Patriot Games (where Ford's iteration is retired and defends his family from vengeful IRA terrorists), and 1994's Clear and Present Danger (where Ford's Ryan is now CIA Deputy Director, hunting Colombian drug cartels). 2002's The Sum of All Fears rebooted Jack in Ben Affleck's image, bouncing him back to Analyst status as Ryan embarks on a mission to take down Neo-Nazi scientists looking to incite nuclear war. 2014's Shadow Recruit forwent an adaptation of one of Clancy's novels (with Nuevo Captain Kirk, Chris Pine, taking the Ryan role) in its attempt to jumpstart the franchise yet again. This final film only further cemented the fact that Kenneth Branagh is not a particularly good action director (though Kevin Costner wasn’t a bad black ops mentor).
Each cinematic iteration of the hero updated Ryan for its filmic times. Baldwin's Cold War man of action became Ford's gruff father, reluctantly answering the call of duty. Affleck's Ryan was inadvertently influenced by 9/11, right down to The Sum of All Fears' release possibly being delayed due to the attacks (though director Phil Alden Robinson always maintained this wasn't true). Shadow Recruit fit squarely into the slick spy and space reboots that flooded Paramount following JJ Abrams' Mission: Impossible III ('06) and pair of Strek Trek ('09) pictures, with Pine playing the part as another Bad Robot superhuman in the making, despite the Alias guru's name being nowhere in the credits (though his presence pervaded that studio). Yet no matter which actor hung Ryan's Boston University diploma on his wall, each take was united by two elements: acting as a fantastical, morally pure great white extension of the author who created them*, while also reflecting Clancy's xenophobic fears of his country being attacked by the (possibly invented) foreign enemies he perceived.
Amazon's new Jack Ryan series introduces John Krasinski's turn as the titular do-gooder, again starting him off at square one as a CIA Analyst in this Michael Bay and Platinum Dunes produced series. Ryan again is battling terrorism – possible "new Bin Laden" Suleiman (Ali Suliman) – whom he picks up on by monitoring suspicious account activity from behind his desk in Langley. Krasinski's Ryan hasn't met his wife Cathy (Abbie Cornish) yet – though he will, at a party thrown by her wealthy father (a former Wall Street associate of Jack's) – nor has he killed his first vector while out on assignment. Hell, Krasinki's version of Jack Ryan keeps insisting he shouldn't even be in action (referring to himself as an "analyst" a few too many times for comfort) when his new Section Chief James Greer (The Wire's Wendell Pierce) plucks him out of the office and joins Jack on a mission to hunt down Suleiman before the militia he's recruiting has an opportunity to enact the next World Trade Center-level massacre.
However, where many of Clancy’s works (and a few of their filmic adaptations) failed to paint these bad men as anything more than stock villains, creators Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Graham Roland (Fringe) imbue Suleiman with not only an interior life and believable motivations – having pulled his best friend from the wreckage of an ‘83 American bombing – but also spends just as much time inside the terror leader's personal and professional affairs as it does Ryan's. Suleiman is a man who has been at war for the majority of his existence, while dutiful wife Hanin (Amira & Sam's Dina Shihabi) not only stood by his side, but raised their four children since age sixteen. Now, Hanin sees her husband transforming from warrior to fanatic, all while wrestling with her place as a Muslim woman; expected to be a constant source of strength and to tend to Suleiman's every need, regardless of whether she wants to or not. It's a terrific bit of character building, made all the more human by Suliman and Shihabi's tremendous performances.
But the supposed "villains" of this story aren't the only Muslims combating a crisis of faith, as a significant side plot in Jack Ryan revolves around Greer losing his ability to pray after his own schism from his spouse and child. While Wendell Pierce could've easily played the disgraced CIA man – who was demoted from his overseas field position into a role akin to babysitting a bunch of data miners – as an extension of The Wire's iconic murder police Bunk Moreland (who dealt with his own fair share of adult supervision with drunk swinging dick Jimmy McNulty), Greer is a deeply felt, melancholy man. There's a spiritual laceration that Pierce opens up as a performer and then bleeds out in front of us, knowing that his colleagues will probably side-eye an agent gripping Islamic prayer beads while investigating a bombing site. He’s a brilliantly crafted “inside man”: often too Muslim for his Intel brethren, while too government for fellow Muslim practitioners.
Though this is Jack Ryan's first trip to the small screen (where you can binge the initial 8 Episode arc in one sitting if so desired), Amazon and Paramount Television's streaming serialization of the character still feels appropriately big. The complex international storyline takes us from Virginia, Lebanon and France during the span of its first four hours, allowing viewers to feel the wide-reaching spread of this terrorist plot. Likewise, when Jack Ryan is required to get intimate, pilot director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) captures the shadowy, sandy corners of a secret CIA interrogation prison, before Daniel Sackheim takes us into the cramped Muslim neighborhoods of Paris in Episode Two ("French Connection") and lets us brave the wintry chill of the mountains on the Turkish border in Episode Four ("The Wolf"). There's an impressive scope that's delivered into the comfort of your living room that never lets you feel like they lost any of Clancy's tantalizing tech grandeur when bringing his favorite CIA man home.
Equally impressive are the action set pieces, where you can really sense the involvement of Krasinski's previous genre conspirators Michael Bay and Platinum Dunes (with whom the former Office star made the Bayghazi shoot 'em up 13 Hours and his own creature feature, A Quiet Place). A siege by Suleiman's army on the aforementioned detention center at the end of the pilot is spectacularly violent, filled with rocket launcher-fueled explosions and plenty of large caliber mayhem. A close-quarters shoot out in a Paris apartment during the subsequent installment is tense and bloody, while Ryan's pursuit of a suspect into the freezing woods during "The Wolf" is splendidly suspenseful. Jack Ryan certainly knows what its audience signed up for, and spared zero expense serving up the action cinema goods, besting most of what you'll see on the big screen this year.
Between Castle Rock and Jack Ryan, 2018 has been a banner year for addicts of '80s and '90s pulp fiction, bringing old favorites to life with a modern flair that doesn't sound like it'd ever work on paper. Yet in the hands of the right creators, both are elevated to prestige status without ever sacrificing the thrills fans of both properties recall with rabid enthusiasm. Like that Stephen King spin-off, Jack Ryan delivers just the right amount of fan service before indulging its showrunners’ numerous whims, marking it as a distinct win for both connoisseurs of Clancy's most popular character (and those simply looking for a sturdy new Intel procedural). But the real proof is in Krasinski's performance, as he nails Ryan's boyish idealism and brainy know-how, before engaging the enemy with action figure physicality. While it's too early to tell if he has a shot at becoming the definitive take on Jack Ryan, this is one hell of a starting point for a reboot that nobody expected to be this damn good.
*Ryan is essentially the Republican Bond, becoming the All-American icon Clancy wanted for his country, who indulged in Cold War heroism (as opposed to Ian Fleming's swanky travel guide).