CIA Analyst Jack Ryan stumbles upon a larger terrorist plot when he traces some anomalous wire transfers.
For a non-James Bond or Doctor Who franchise that has been rebooted four times and had five different actors playing the title role, you’d think that fourth time would be the charm. Not so for Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. Starring John Krasinski and developed for Amazon Prime and hyped for over a year, Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland play things way too safe–almost timidly–leading to a difficult climb toward the exciting climax of this short, eight-episode season.
I’ve grown up with Jack Ryan. Tom Clancy’s novels starring the history professor-turned-CIA analyst were the first “grown-up” books I ever picked up: I vividly remember reading Patriot Games on the beach after my dad had finished it. I ate those books up, couldn’t put them down. And there are a lot of them. And they’re thick. I later moved on to the film adaptations and then followed them eagerly as different creators tried and failed to get a franchise off the ground. For some reason, after 2002’s The Sum of All Fears, starring Ben Affleck as Jack, filmmakers decided to abandon the nearly 10,000 pages (9,440 according to the books on my shelf) of tried-and-true source material and go it alone.
Now, I’m all for filmmaking license and liberty–Clancy’s books are around 2-3 decades old, and times have changed in the spy game. Some aspects need updating. However, there’s nothing you can take from Clancy’s own work other than the thinnest details of the character? It’s as though they assume that everyone has read the books and just knows who he is so that they don’t have to bother with any setup. And yet, the creators don’t seem to have read the books themselves. They have fully reinvented his backstory, changed his parents’ deaths (which is an important aspect of his character), added new best friends (when he has interesting, diverse characters in the books), and made Cathy (Abbie Cornish) flat and boring. This flabbergasts me.
However, looking at it objectively as a modern spy series, it has its highs and lows. It’s decent, but rather run of the mill. Not the groundbreaking, real-world scenarios that Clancy penned. There’s a terrorist planning something and he’s transferring a lot of money. Let’s chase him. We’ve seen that show and that film before.
Moreover, we’re dropped into Jack Ryan without much information or backstory, though the writers throw us a few bones here and there: he used to be a marine but was injured in a helicopter crash in Iraq, he used to work on Wall Street and has his doctorate in economics, now he’s an analyst for the CIA studying financial patterns. He stumbles on a pattern of transactions that look suspicious, and this takes him around the world searching for answers. This is a decent enough premise, but this exposition is doled out just about as neatly and subtly as I have just now.
This limited series needs a few episodes more to let the characters simmer, to grow Jack’s character a bit more. They should spend more time on the background and buildup–Jack getting into the CIA. I’m happy that they do somewhat establish his background, but it’s not fleshed out well. This is a series! In this day and age of the slow-burning, character-based mystery, Cuse and company need to take the time to fully develop their characters. Storylines are frustratingly teased and dropped, and there’s an entire episode where Jack has about ten lines.
John Krasinksi, as we always knew he would be, is excellent as Jack Ryan. He’s understated, as he does in his dramatic roles, and he gives some good emotional heft to Jack. He’s a good, good man who will do the right thing, no matter what. Krasinski’s pathos very nearly makes up for the gutting they’ve done to Clancy’s carefully-woven tapestry that is Jack Ryan. Gone is the history professor, the family man, the self-made millionaire who turned to the CIA to help his family–he’s now just an analyst who turns out to be pretty good in the field. Who fights and explodes things and analyzes things. Did I mention he’s an analyst? Because Ryan does at least once per episode–often more–right before getting into a firefight.
Conversely, Wendell Pierce is underused and overwritten as former CIA Head in Karachi James Greer. To be fair, like Krasinski, he’s got big shoes to fill, following James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman, and he does a fine job. But here he’s ornery and irritable, unlike the level-headed character of the novels. He’s not got the gravitas of those actors, but he does possess some of the wry humour to balance Jack out.
In addition to the two leads, the production value is quite often excellent, with some action sequences standing tall beside films in similar veins. The filmmakers seem willing to experiment, to varying degrees of success, with unusual shots. While I applaud them for this, the flashy bits do seem at times to be the focus of the production, rather than the nuances of character or having non-clunky dialogue or the most pointless few scenes of nudity I’ve ever seen.
Ultimately, this is a passable spy series that did not need to be named after Tom Clancy’s character. I hope that the already greenlit and soon-to-be filming second season decides to really delve into the complexities of Jack’s character, not just in the espionage. Jack Ryan could be great, because it has exceptional source material from which to glean, and seasoned creators at the helm. It’s just unfortunate that they went for a well-polished surface over well-crafted substance.
Tyler is a teacher, librarian and the Co-host of The Geek Card Check Podcast. He has been a Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut since 2018.