With the debut of Amazon’s Jack Ryan, John Krasinski will be the fifth actor to play the title character, a CIA analyst introduced in a series of best-selling Eighties novels by Tom Clancy(*). Krasinski follows Alec Baldwin in The Hunt For Red October, Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and A Clear and Present Danger, Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears and Chris Pine in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
(*) I devoured the early books as a teenager, but stopped reading the series well before Ryan’s career advanced to him assuming the presidency, let alone before other authors continued the series following Clancy’s death.
You can look at the frequent recasting and reboots in one of two ways. Either Ryan as a character is elastic enough to be played by so many relatively different performers (albeit all of them tall white guys) across so many different geo-political eras. Or he’s bland enough that you can plug in anyone, at any time, and it won’t make much difference.
The first four episodes of the Amazon series (it debuts August 31) lean more towards the latter theory. It’s an entertaining watch, but owing more to the sheer craft of the people making it than to anything particularly compelling about Ryan himself.
Competent storytelling isn’t something that should need praising for a TV show in 2018, yet Jack Ryan — adapted by Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland, with early directors including Morten Tyldum, Daniel Sackheim and Patricia Riggen — stands in striking contrast to so many sluggishly-paced, poorly-lit streaming drama wallows of recent vintage. It moves briskly and offers up at least one big action set piece per episode — though nothing as impressive as in the Ryan films, nor even TV shows like Strike Back or Daredevil. The production makes good use of international locations and the writers put in the necessary effort to make terrorist big bad Suleiman (Ali Suliman) a human being with recognizable motivations. It’s familiar but never dull.
As for Jack himself? Krasinski is good, though he can be a bit too understated in a role that already trends that way. We’ve again gone back to the beginning of Jack’s CIA career, as a former Wall Street trader who specializes in following terrorists’ financial transactions. Cuse and Roland are definitely playing with the contrast between their leading man’s Jim Halpert persona (Jack spends a lot of time at his desk trying not to react visibly to his erratic boss) and his pumped-up 13 Hours physique (Jack also spends a lot of time examining new and old scars from his adventures). I would suggest drinking every time Jack tells someone that he’s just an analyst, but you’d likely die of alcohol poisoning. Those protestations are inevitably followed by his scene partner speculating about Jack’s hidden depths — “I think you are a wolf,” suggests a French cop, “who plays at being a sheep” — as if to overcompensate for how calm and easygoing he seems.
There’s also a forgettable romance with Abbie Cornish’s Cathy (played variously in the movies by Gates McFadden, Anne Archer, Bridget Moynahan and Keira Knightley), the daughter of Jack’s former Wall Street boss. The more interesting relationship Jack has is with his new boss Jim Greer (Wendell Pierce, following in the large footsteps of James Earl Jones). Greer has been reimagined more thoroughly than Jack, and is now a disgraced and bitter former CIA station chief finding career redemption through the work of this whiz kid he slowly learns to trust. It’s a character to whom Pierce and the writers give a lot of shading — Greer is also a lapsed Muslim reconnecting with his faith after the end of the marriage for which he converted — and Jack Ryan is at its most vibrant in the awkward push-pull between reluctant mentor and wary protégé.
It’s a show that knows exactly what it wants to be and is mostly quite successful at it. There’s no particular need for another Jack Ryan reboot, but nor does the show feel like a hopeless relic from a time before Jack Bauer or Carrie Mathison. The film version of Hunt for Red October is a suspense classic that the rest of the movies and now this show have never come close to equaling, but it set an aspirational goal that has served its follow-ups well, all the way through this latest attempt. Like Jack Ryan himself, the Amazon show is smart and confident and thorough. That’s enough to get the job done.