Jack Ryan review

Amazon hopes to strike streaming gold with Jack Ryan, their new espionage thriller based on the work of Tom Clancy. Does this Jack Ryan succeed where recent attempts like The Sum of All Fears and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit failed?

Let’s put it this way: Jack Ryan the character is the least interesting part about Jack Ryan the show, and that’s a problem.

John Krasinski Jack Ryan

Jack’s Back

Hollywood refuses to give up on Jack Ryan. After the box office success of The Hunt for Red October, featuring Alec Baldwin as the CIA analyst, and Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, which had Harrison Ford assuming the role, producers have attempted to reboot the character into his own modern-day franchise twice, with mixed results. In 2002, Ben Affleck tried the Ryan name on for size with The Sum of All Fears. The movie made its budget back, but wasn’t a smash hit. Chris Pine took up the Jack Ryan mantle next in 2014’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, which underperformed.

In a sane universe, that might put the nail in the Jack Ryan coffin. But here we are again, with Amazon’s expensive, flashy new original series Jack Ryan (technically called Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, although don’t expect anyone to use that full name that often).

What is it about Clancy’s character that keeps drawing producers and filmmakers in? I’d argue it’s a case of misunderstanding. Clancy’s books were airport reads for conservative grandpas – thick, doorstop paperbacks that were loaded with military jargon and right-leaning sentiment. They also weren’t exactly action-packed, at least not in the ways we tend to think of action movies.

The first three Ryan films found success despite their source material, not because of it. When The Hunt For Red October hit theaters in 1990, audiences didn’t think of it as a “Jack Ryan movie” – they thought of it as an action-thriller starring Sean Connery. Ryan wasn’t even the main character.

Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger had the distinction of having Harrison Ford, still a huge box office draw at the time, in the lead. Audiences who flocked to those films weren’t excited for more Jack Ryan adventures. They just wanted to see Harrison Ford. That was the last time any film featuring Jack Ryan was considered a big hit. Because, no offense to Mr.’s Affleck and Pine, but neither of them are Harrison Ford.

Sure, there is, of course, an audience – mostly made up of older, 50-plus white males – who will recognize the character, and the Tom Clancy brand, and find themselves interested. But as a whole, Jack Ryan the character isn’t nearly as renowned as, say, James Bond. Or Batman.

Can TV (or, technically, streaming) succeed where film has not? Perhaps. Amazon’s Jack Ryan has undergone a lengthy marketing blitz, and star John Krasinski is more popular than ever, thanks to his surprisingly excellent A Quiet Place. The serialized medium of TV would allow for much more time for Jack Ryan as a character to grow…if handled properly.

Unfortunately, Amazon’s Jack Ryan takes the “TV series as a movie” approach that so many modern shows travel now. This isn’t a TV show with installments – it’s one very long movie broken up into 45-50 minute chunks. This is an approach that has plagued many Netflix shows – primarily their Marvel output – and it’s not doing Jack Ryan any favors.

Wendell Pierce Jack Ryan

All The Characters Are Compelling (Except Jack Ryan) 

This is very much an origin story. Jack Ryan as a character comes across as wet behind the ears. He’s a former soldier turned CIA analyst, and there’s a very real sense that he’s never had to deal with anything extreme before – at least as part of his CIA gig. That all changes when Ryan begins tracking Suleiman (Ali Suliman), an Islamic sheikh who – according to Ryan, at least – might just be the next bin Laden.

Ryan has to run his Suleiman theory by his new boss, James Greer (Wendell Pierce). Greer was once a respected member of the CIA, rising through the ranks. But a screw-up has bumped him down to Ryan’s basement-dwelling division, more of a punishment than a promotion. Greer and Ryan clash at first, but their differences are put aside very quickly for the sake of getting into the action.

It turns out Ryan is right and Suleiman is planning something big, and deadly. Now, Ryan and Greer are on a race against the clock, trying to stop Suleiman before he grows more powerful and dangerous.

Each episode of Jack Ryan follows a simple, almost maddening formula. Jack Ryan and his team learn some pressing bit of information, they investigate as a metaphorical ticking clock looms large, and then the episode concludes with a big shoot-out or explosion. Ending each episode with a literal bang all but guarantees viewers will find themselves forced to keep streaming, keep binge-ing, keep watching. But that doesn’t make this approach any less cheap and manipulative.

It’s frustrating, too, because Jack Ryan works best when it stops trying to ramp up the action and takes a breath. What this show has going for it is strong character work, and that amounts to something far more enjoyable than any action beat.

Ryan himself is probably the least interesting part of his own show, but nearly everyone around him is compelling. James Greer, Ryan’s new boss, is a prickly, bitter man who also just happens to be a practicing Muslim. We learn that he converted to the religion for his wife – who has since left him. And though he claims to no longer care about practicing, he soon finds himself falling back into prayer. There’s a good chance this character trait is an attempt by creators Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland to downplay any Islamophobia that’s inherent to the storyline unfolding here, but it works. And Pierce’s no-bullshit performance sells it all wonderfully.

Abbie Cornish, playing Cathy Muller, a doctor tracking a potential outbreak of ebola, makes an impression as well. The character as written could’ve come across as a bit one note, but Cornish brings a down-to-earth vibe to the part that makes her seem like the most human character on the show.

Suleiman makes for a fascinating antagonist. Rather than paint him as a one-note terrorist, the scripts flesh out his backstory extensively. We’re treated to multiple flashbacks that show us his early days, and how he became radicalized. Ali Suliman’s performance finds just the right note of empathy, striving to make Suleiman seem almost dangerously reasonable at times…until he isn’t.

An entire subplot is devoted to Suleiman’s wife, Hani (Dina Shihabi), who sees how dangerous her husband is becoming. She flees with her two daughters in tow, going through hell in an attempt to get out of Syria and make her way to Europe. Shihabi brings a much-needed warmth to the show, portraying her character as someone in almost constant danger who is nonetheless always trying to do the right thing.

The most compelling character, however, is drone pilot Victor Polizzi (John Magaro), who barely even factors into the main storyline. One of the best episodes of this first season ignores Ryan and his story completely and instead focuses on Polizzi, who is going through a crisis of conscience as he thinks about his job. As he tells it, he trained to be an actual pilot. Instead, he finds himself sitting in a trailer in the U.S., operating a joystick to drop bombs on people 10,000 miles away. It’s tantamount to playing video games, with an actual body count. And it’s clearly getting to him.

(Spoilers for one episode ahead.)

He and his co-pilot have a running game where they hand each other dollar bills for every kill they get. We follow Polizzi home, where he has a plethora of those dollar bills tacked up to his wall. He stares at them in disbelief, then heads out to a casino. He tries desperately to lose that stack of cash by gambling…but he keeps winning. The money doubles, tripples. He drunkenly brings a married couple back to his apartment, where he proceeds to have sex with the woman while her husband watches. What follows seems inevitable – the husband brutally assaults Polizzi. But, curiously enough, the husband and wife both attempt to leave without stealing the pile of money Polizzi has not-so-casually left out on an end table. Beaten and desperate, he pathetically offers the money up. He begs for it to be stolen – so that the burden he feels from all those kills is lifted. But the married couple refuse. That’s his money to keep. That’s his cross to bear.

This all culminates in two remarkable moments. One is a very tense scene in which Polizzi, back at his post, deliberately disobeys a direct order in attempt to save a woman who is being attacked. The other finds Polizzi flying off to Syria to find the father of a man he killed via drone strike. He wants to apologize for his actions, but his English words aren’t understood. Instead, the family of the man he killed invites him in for tea. It’s a heart-wrenching moment, and entirely unexpected.

(Spoilers over.)

You don’t tend to see these quiet, reflective moments in stories about American agents tracking down terrorists. I longed for more of this. Unfortunately, Jack Ryan is more interested in the action.

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