While the Bond franchise hunts for a new director (and maybe even Daniel Craig’s successor), Amazon is hoping to move from niche programming to blockbuster productions with the help of a different household name. Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, from Lost alums Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland, presents the fifth screen iteration of Clancy’s jack of all trades, a Marine turned stockbroker turned CIA analyst (and, one day, president of the United States). The series turns out to be one of the more thoughtful and compelling political thrillers produced post-9/11, offering nuanced antagonists, some truly impressive set pieces, and an examination of the effects of U.S. foreign policy. Its lead character, though, is having an identity crisis in the first season.
Cuse and Roland have a lot of history to play with, but they’ve set this show in their own corner of the Ryanverse, taking Jack (John Krasinski) back to his early days in the CIA (and sans his Shadow Recruit motives). But there are flashes of the exceptionally astute everyman played by Harrison Ford and the steely resolve of Alec Baldwin in this latest incarnation, who is convinced he’s on the cyber trail of the “next Bin Laden.” The series immediately pairs him with Jim Greer (Wendell Pierce, doing his level best as always), a former CIA station chief who’s been “PNGed” or “persona non grata’d”—just a taste of that famous Clancy jargon—back to Langley. Jim gets over his grudge in time to whisk Jack away on one dramatic helicopter ride after another, in pursuit of Sheikh Suleiman (Ali Suliman), who aims to build “the greatest Islamic empire ever.”
That wild boast aside, Jack Ryan is surprisingly subtle when delving into its antagonists’ motivations. Suleiman’s tragic history is revealed in the premiere, and it informs his every move, including some truly horrifying acts of terror. As Suleiman, Suliman is soulful and charismatic, but he won’t let anything stand in the way of his vengeance, not even his wife Hanin (a luminous Dina Shihabi) and their three children. A good portion of the dialogue is in Arabic (with English subtitles), a conscious move to more fully immerse viewers in the world of those who have been victims to regime changes and Western powers’ foreign policies (it’s not just the U.S. that’s being criticized). Such decisions set Jack Ryan worlds apart from 24 and its spin-offs, despite taking place in many of the same locales. The Amazon drama proves that thoughtfulness doesn’t have to come at the cost of action—directors Morten Tyldum, Daniel Sackheim, and Patricia Riggen offset the more meditative moments with high-octane thrills, including a fraught online conversation to rival some of the tensest typing ever seen on screen.
In that respect, Jack Ryan the show is very much a reflection of Clancy’s work, full of strong convictions but capable of great empathy. But Jack Ryan the man isn’t nearly so fleshed out a character at this point. Krasinski certainly looks the part of a former Marine, having jacked up his lankier Office physique for 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi in 2016. The warm critical reception for A Quiet Place also proves Krasinski is more than just a Scranton-based wiseacre with potential. But he can’t quite marry those two sides in his performance; Jack is kind of dour when he’s in the field. And while he shows considerably more charm when he’s pursuing Dr. Cathy Mueller (Abbie Cornish), his grimness everywhere else makes those scenes feel incongruous. It doesn’t help that Cathy is written in a similarly bifurcated manner, so that she’s only ever reacting to Jack’s wooing or telling her co-workers that she’s too busy for romance.
Canonically, Jack Ryan has always been more Boy Scout than international man of mystery, but he’s also the kind of guy who buys the first round of beer after the office softball game—in which he gave up maybe one run—and still makes it home in time to tuck in his kid. Though the character lacks the suaveness of 007 or the kill rate of Jack Bauer, he has something none of those government operatives has: a full life. There are flashes of a more relatable yet still conflicted counter-terrorism agent, who keeps a well-worn mitt in the same desk drawer as his tie. But Cuse and Roland’s vision calls for a much more isolated Jack, one who rows contemplatively before biking pensively to work, where he studiously crunches numbers to prevent humanitarian disaster. Who hurt this Jack, we wonder (though not for long). In updating Clancy’s oeuvre, the producers have given us yet another lone wolf type, one who grudgingly learns to let in others. The interplay between Krasinski and Pierce brightens up that journey through well-worn territory, and the well-executed international intrigue also means it’s far from a slog. But Jack Ryan would do well to remember a certain proverb to prevent the show from being all work and no play for its otherwise strong lead.