Jack Ryan: Why is Tom Clancy's CIA operative such an enduring character?

John Krasinski follows in the footsteps of Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine to star as hard-worn CIA operative

Joe Sommerlad@JoeSommerlad
Wednesday 29 August 2018 08:16
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Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan Season 1 - Official Trailer _ Prime Video

A major new action series starring John Krasinski as Jack Ryan launches next week on Amazon Prime Video.

The online giant is only the latest to adapt Tom Clancy’s popular series of novels about the ex-Marine turned CIA operative - a character who has previously been played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine.

Ryan first appeared in The Hunt for Red October in 1984 and has since appeared 21 books, with no fewer than seven appearing in the last four years, no mean feat given that Clancy died in 2013.

Writing duties have since passed on to Mark Greaney, Grant Blackwood, Mike Maden and Marc Cameron and the character shows no sign of stopping.

In a moment when the James Bond franchise appears to be in disarray after director Danny Boyle left the project over creative differences with star Daniel Craig and calls to cast Idris Elba in the lead role grow ever louder, Jack Ryan should prove a breezier proposition.

Like the Mission: Impossible series, the latest instalment of which featured daredevil stunt work from star Tom Cruise, is far less loaded with back story and fan expectation than Bond, allowing filmmakers to tackle the naval historian turned field agent as they see fit.

The likes of Ethan Hunt, Jason Bourne and Jack Ryan are less tied to the moment of their conception than Bond and adaptations of Clancy’s novels can therefore be adjusted to suit present geopolitical concerns and themes more readily, without fear of jeopardising precious character traits and beloved details.

Here’s our assessment of the five previous Ryan outings, ranked worst to best.

5. The Sum of All Fears (2002)

Despite a superb supporting cast including Morgan Freeman, Liev Schreiber and Philip Baker Hall, Phil Alden Robinson’s bid to revive what was then a dormant franchise is disappointingly leaden and generic.

Ben Affleck was chosen as a younger incarnation of Ryan after two outings with Harrison Ford but lacked the effortless gravity the older man brought to the part.

The novel on which this entry was based was published in 1990 and, 12 years later, some of Clancy’s late Cold War concerns felt stale and irrelevant.

4. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

Chris Pine’s spin on Ryan was suave indeed but the actor managed to come across as even more boyish and improbable than Affleck.

Overall though Kenneth Branagh’s film is solid stuff, featuring the sort of kinetic, crunching action sequences mandatory in the wake of Paul Greengrass’s Bourne films, notably a bruising Moscow car chase.

Chris Pine and Keira Knightley in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit 

Shadow Recruit also makes more of Ryan’s emotional life than usual, giving second billing to Keira Knightley as his long-term girlfriend Cathy Muller. “This is geopolitics, not couples’ therapy,” Kevin Costner snarls.

Perhaps Branagh’s biggest error was casting himself as Russian villain Viktor Cherevin, adopting a comically heavy accent.

3. Patriot Games (1992)

Harrison Ford’s weary demeanour fitted the character like an old coat. There’s a reluctance at play here that makes his Ryan both entirely plausible and sympathetic.

A more contained revenge narrative than either Clear and President Danger or The Hunt for Red October, Ryan is here up against IRA terrorist Sean Miller (Sean Bean), fixated on the American’s assassination.

Miller’s brother is killed when the paramilitary group’s plan to kidnap a member of the British royal family is foiled by Ryan, causing the elder sibling to pursue him to the States and terrorise his young family, carrying echoes of Cape Fear (1962).

Despite some lazy Irish cliches - everyone has a flat cap and pint of Guinness - this is the sort of entirely satisfying action thriller that used to roll off the Hollywood production line.

2. Clear and Present Danger (1994)

Ford’s return as Ryan, again directed by Philip Noyce, sees him enter the war on drugs, taking on the murky world of Washington cover-ups and the cartels in the jungles of Colombia.

The sequel has a broader global outlook than Patriot Games and allows Ford to develop the character’s growing disgust at the laissez faire corruption of those above him.

Wolfgang Peterson’s Air Force One (1997), in which Ford played the US president under siege from terrorists in mid-air, almost completes a trilogy.

He did a great deal better there than Donald Moffat does in Clear and Present Danger, a major weak link in an otherwise polished caper.

1. The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Alec Baldwin was the first to play Jack Ryan and brought a brooding, troubled, even soulful quality to the character that worked well.

Ryan is this time called in to prevent the US Navy launching an attack on a Soviet nuclear submarine having correctly deduced that its rogue captain, Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), really intends to defect rather than launch a ballistic missile from the north Atlantic.

John McTiernan’s film has its problems, not least Connery’s dogged refusal to even contemplate a Russian accent (a reverse Branagh). It is a terse, thoughtful piece from an expert genre director, the man behind Predator (1987) and Die Hard (1988).

The Hunt for Red October nicely captures the uneasy political atmosphere of the moment in which it was made, Ryan offering a hand to Ramius with the words, “Welcome to the New World, sir”, just as the USSR found itself on the brink of collapse.

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