There ought to be one of those compound German words to describe Amazon’s Jack Ryan—something like langeweilierrregung (“boring-exciting”) or vergessbarververgnugen (“forgettable fun”). In its second eight-episode season, the action series once again sends its title character on a journey from analyst to commando, embracing and eschewing nuance as it deems necessary. Like most iterations of Tom Clancy’s character—he’s been played in the movies by Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin, Ben Affleck, and Chris Pine—this one is a badass-in-waiting. How long do we have to wait before John Krasinski trades his button-down for a flak jacket in season two? Not very long, as it turns out, which makes sense: There’s obviously no doubt that it’s coming, so it may as well be quick.
The self-contained first season of Jack Ryan found Ryan teaming up with CIA operative Jim Greer (The Wire’s fabulously cantankerous Wendell Pierce) to save the world from an evil Islamic terrorist/genius hell-bent on various sinister mass-murder plots. It was, as multi-part streaming series seem to always be, a bit overstuffed, with minor characters and side plots that, while ultimately well coordinated, could be confusing, unnecessary, or both. If season one was filled to the brim, season two spills over. It’s got everything: crooked elections, assassination, secret missions into foreign countries, double crosses, off-the-books military incursions, jungle combat, children in peril, city combat, sexy secret agents, a soldier who wants out but they keep pulling him back in, riots in the street, heart problems, and much more.
At the end of season one, Greer invited Jack Ryan to join him at his new CIA post in Moscow, but we learn in season two that Jack declined the invitation in order to work for a U.S. Senator—at a desk! It’s important work, we learn, but the two old pals who act like they hate each other (“You’re not my boss this time,” says Jack) can’t stay apart for too long. From different directions, each catches wind of a suspicious freighter unloading cargo in Venezuela. At first they suspect nuclear weapons shipments from Russia—a world-ending possibility, Jack tells a classroom—but turns are twisted and twists are turned, naturally. (If this were a two-hour Jack Ryan movie, things would be more straightforward; because we’re in eight-hour mode, there must be dead ends, red herrings, and soulful asides.)
The chief villain appears to be Venezuelan President Reyes (Jordi Mollà), whose incredible bad-guy affectations—roll those Rs any harder and your tongue is going to fall out, pal—paints him immediately as one to watch out for. He’s got a right-hand man who doubts him and another who will literally murder dozens of people for him, and their lives are unnecessarily complicated by the relationship between their wives, in a time-killing sub-plot.
Things start rolling quickly with the death of Jack Ryan’s old army buddy, played by Benito Martinez of The Shield, in a crackerjack sequence the likes of which you’ve seen many times before: A convoy moves through the city in a hostile foreign country, only to be separated and ambushed. It’s a no-nonsense, wholly unoriginal fight, but urgent in the way that the best moments in Homeland and 24 —two obvious touchstones here—are. The murder of his good friend—that deep friendship is established very quickly, telegraphing this death sentence—makes this whole thing personal for our buff-but-milquetoast hero, and he sets out for analytical revenge.
So one minute Jack Ryan is working on one of those bulletin boards on which geniuses draw lines—often with string—between various baddies that they’re after, and the next minute he’s suiting up with a band of black-ops guys and heading into the jungle. Along the way, we learn about some kind of super-duper surveillance as well as an ultra-rare metal used in modern devices that could be worth trillions of dollars. (The characters say “trillions” several times.) Jack butts heads with his bosses and must, as all great super-spies must, go “off reservation” in order to bring justice and peace to a world that doesn’t even know it’s in danger. In true 24 fashion, his partner is even quick to snip off a bad guy’s finger, signaling that these two are no longer playing by the rules. They’re resisted and then joined by an excellent Michael Kelly, best known as House Of Cards fixer Doug Stamper.
Of course the path to justice is circuitous in life and in eight-episode Amazon series, so while Jack Ryan is hunting his friend’s killer and trying to keep the world safe, he’s being hunted as well. His shapeshifting would-be assassin is played by someone with experience: Tom Wlaschiha, a.k.a. Game Of Thrones’ faceless man, Jaqen H’ghar. He’s hopelessly intertwined with Noomi Rapace’s character Harriet Baumann, who also seduces Jack at their first, he-should-have-known-it-wasn’t-coincidental meeting. Speaking of unlikely coincidences: Shows like Jack Ryan are built on them, but this one deserves credit for mostly trying to build a semi-plausible universe for its characters to inhabit. While there are still a couple of head-scratching groaners in which characters just happen upon each other, it’s mostly fairly grounded—or at least grounded enough not to seem like an entirely magical universe. (In a fun real-world story, the actual Venezuelan government was angered by the trailer for season two, so there’s that dose of reality to digest.)
Ultimately, Jack Ryan is boxed in by the exact same parameters as any action franchise: We know that Jack Ryan—the man, the analyst, the badass—must prevail using his wits and his gun. He can lose friends and even get injured, but the greenlight from Amazon for season three—not to mention the rich tapestry of the Jack Ryan literary universe—means that ultimately the stakes are low. That leaves the heavy lifting to the action and to the twists, both of which are well above average in season two. If that sounds like damnation by faint praise, it actually falls on the side of recommendation by faint praise: Jack Ryan is fun and forgettable, exciting and predictable.