Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The many cinematic faces of Jack Ryan, from left to right: Harrison Ford in Patriot Games (Screenshot), Alec Baldwin in The Hunt For Red October (Photo: Mondadori/Getty Images), Chris Pine in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Photo: Paramount Pictures), and Ben Affleck in The Sum Of All Fears (Screenshot)

The Jack Ryan movies reboot their way from Baldwins to Afflecks in search of a hit franchise

The many cinematic faces of Jack Ryan, from left to right: Harrison Ford in Patriot Games (Screenshot), Alec Baldwin in The Hunt For Red October (Photo: Mondadori/Getty Images), Chris Pine in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Photo: Paramount Pictures), and Ben Affleck in The Sum Of All Fears (Screenshot)
Graphic: Libby McGuire

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

For a time, CIA analyst-turned-man-of-action Jack Ryan looked like the perfect role for actors looking to flex their leading-man muscles. Playing Ryan requires a performer commanding enough to plausibly interact with movie presidents; restrained enough to assume an action hero’s faux humility; and confident enough to accept easy replacement when the job inevitably fails to work out. It’s the part that everyone wants—and almost no one is willing to keep.

Ryan is the most famous character created by the late novelist Tom Clancy, in part because he has appeared in blockbuster movie adaptations and has been brought to life by the likes of Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck. It’s easy to imagine Clancy satisfied with this arrangement, given his admiration for actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan. Yet somehow, this steady stream of star-powered, big-budget thrillers has failed to produce a viable long-running film series for long-time distributor Paramount. Despite a number of box office hits, the Jack Ryan movies look more like an abbreviated, centerless version of the James Bond series: a progression of handsome spies without the defining iconography of someone like Sean Connery—or even, really, Roger Moore or Daniel Craig.

Technically, only three of the five Jack Ryan movies exist within the same series: The Hunt For Red October, starring Alec Baldwin, and the Harrison Ford twofer of Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger. Two attempted Young Ryan reboots, Affleck’s The Sum Of All Fears and Chris Pine’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, are not prequels to the other films or each other (nor, for that matter, is the current Jack Ryan TV series starring John Krasinski). Even within the films that share a continuity, actual continuity is limited: Among major actors, only James Earl Jones carries over from Red October to Patriot Games, and the events of the former don’t seem to have much bearing on the latter. Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger are the only entries that feel directly related to each other. In a peculiar way, the disparate Ryans make the full five-movie sequence more unified, like an intentional anthology rather than a series of false starts.

Image for article titled The Jack Ryan movies reboot their way from Baldwins to Afflecks in search of a hit franchise
Screenshot: The Hunt For Red October (1990)

Maybe The Hunt For Red October’s (1990) warm reception made starting over with another part one more appealing than trying to sequelize such a well-liked movie. The first first Jack Ryan adventure doesn’t cede him the spotlight; it’s split between Ryan (Baldwin) and Marko Ramius (Connery, indirectly antagonizing the American Bond with the genuine article), a Soviet naval captain directing his high-tech submarine toward the United States. Ryan comes to believe, in one of his famous counterintuitive-yet-well-reasoned hunches, that Ramius wants to defect, not attack. In what will become a pattern across all manner of Jack Ryans, he is correct, and races to keep the situation from detonating.

In the context of other Ryan movies, The Hunt For Red October stands out in part because it offers a crisp, unfussy introduction to the character, rather than a belabored origin story. Compared to the often-isolated action heroes of director John McTiernan’s two preceding films, Predator and Die Hard, Ryan is a mere cog in political-thriller machinery. Pulpy as the material is, McTiernan and the screenwriters create a momentarily believable cinematic Clancy World, where Ryan can look as slick as a young Alec Baldwin and still come across like a scrappy, level-headed scrambler. Wisely, Ryan isn’t pitted directly against Connery’s star power; his function is to eventually work his way onto the movie star’s side. It’s a crafty picture in more ways than one.

By contemporary standards, Patriot Games (1992) feels like a later-period sequel, with Ryan recast and director Phillip Noyce adopting a somewhat grimmer tone for a story about an IRA operative seeking vengeance against Ryan’s family. Shameless about using wife-and-child endangerment as a plot driver, the movie is basically the “shit just got real” last half-hour of countless action pictures spread over the whole story—and spread thin. Clear And Present Danger (1994), wherein Ryan receives an unexpected promotion and becomes ensnared in a covert war with a drug cartel, reverses that “this time it’s personal” sequel cliché: This time it’s impersonal—which fits just fine for a series that typically struggles with human interests beyond war rooms, command centers, and the interiors of various state vehicles. Clear And Present Danger also contains perhaps the only truly excellent action set piece in the entire Jack Ryan film oeuvre: an ambush on the streets of Colombia that pits rooftop assassins against Ryan’s motorcade. Sequences like that, and the presence of Willem Dafoe as black ops leader John Clark, help ameliorate the fact that this movie runs a full 141 minutes, often lumbering through its solemnity. It makes sense as a sprawled-out Sunday afternoon cable watch, because any given 20-minute section seems equally likely to inspire attention- or channel-flipping.

Image for article titled The Jack Ryan movies reboot their way from Baldwins to Afflecks in search of a hit franchise
Screenshot: Patriot Games (1992)

While they’re not as sleekly exciting as Red October, the Noyce/Ford movies were solid box office performers, inspiring plans to make Clancy’s The Sum Of All Fears (2002) with Ford. When Ford and the filmmakers couldn’t settle on a script, it was eventually reworked into a reboot, reconfiguring a later-period Ryan novel to take place earlier in his career. Again, Sum isn’t exactly a prequel; Affleck is playing a younger Jack Ryan in then-present day, with the added time wrinkle that the movie is about a devastating terrorist attack clearly conceptualized before 9/11 but released eight months afterward.

Despite its mass casualties, The Sum Of All Fears is a little lighter on its feet than the Noyce films. This is both a welcome respite from all of Noyce’s blue-gray portent and also a likely reason that the detonation of a nuclear bomb in a football stadium registers more as an “exciting” plot point than a potential global turning point. The movie is at its best when dealing in the coded messages and gamesmanship of international communication, a distant cousin of director Phil Alden Robinson’s delightful Sneakers. Robinson and Affleck are less sure-footed in the murky depiction of nuclear catastrophe, and Sum loses itself between old-fashioned quasi-political bombast and weightless summer-movie spectacle.

A decade later, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) would tinker with the concepts of Sum Of All Fears, fully integrating 9/11 into Ryan’s backstory while also emphasizing a smaller-scale conflict and the origins of his relationship with Cathy (Keira Knightley). It’s not based on an actual Clancy novel, instead amalgamating a number of those familiar elements. (You can practically hear the producers plotting to remake and remix all previous Jack Ryan adventures, with the cockiness of superhero movies plotting out crossovers that will happen two or three movies down the line.) It feels a little ersatz as a result, with some knockoff-Bourne fisticuffs, a Mission: Impossible-style team, and a dash of faux-Hitchcock intrigue that self-consciously pulls Cathy further into the action than past entries.

Image for article titled The Jack Ryan movies reboot their way from Baldwins to Afflecks in search of a hit franchise
Screenshot: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

Yet this 105-minute movie also feels liberated from some series tedium: the talkiness, the swollen cabinet-sized casts, the political pretensions that only ever amount to middlebrow patriotism. Pine’s Ryan is charismatic, Knightley’s Cathy is more engaging than her previous counterparts, and director Kenneth Branagh has a real rapport with the actor hamming it up as the film’s villain—namely, himself. The movie’s centerpiece goes relatively small: It involves Ryan, Cathy, and the bad guy going out to dinner (as Ryan and his CIA cohorts engineer a high-tech break-in). Like fellow Dad Movies of the era Jack Reacher and A Walk Among The Tombstones, Shadow Recruit could have inspired its own small-scale series of stylish time-killers. Instead, it’s one of the larger franchise’s better variations on its own limitations.

All of the Jack Ryan movies are at least moderately well-made, and many of them are a bit overlong—again, a lot like James Bond (with Red October as the From Russia With Love/Casino Royale example of cut-above craftsmanship). This should mean that, like Bond, the movies take their cues from the personalities of their leading actors, perhaps reflecting values of their respective time periods. But none of these Jack Ryans feel especially definitive. The actor who’s now played the character the longest in terms of pure screen time isn’t from the movies at all; it’s actually Krasinski, who surpassed Ford’s man-hours sometime during the first season of the still-running Jack Ryan TV show.

It makes sense that the TV creators have cited Ford’s Ryan as a reference point for Krasinski’s version; for better or worse, Ford probably comes closest to making a lasting impression. It’s not necessarily one of his best performances or most endearing characters. He just best fits the stodgy image of a stereotypical Tom Clancy reader: middle-aged, set in his principles, loyal and a little grumpy, dutiful enough to make it through a second film. At the same time, Clancy supposedly felt he was too old for the part, and he may not have been wrong. Ford is the most convincingly square Ryan of the bunch, yet he also comes off as a bit of a self-righteous asshole, wielding the Ford Finger Of Reproachment and making terse small talk about his hatred of Mexican food. Baldwin approaches from the other direction, his natural velvety smoothness belying the movie’s references to Ryan’s discomfort with flying or bad back.

Image for article titled The Jack Ryan movies reboot their way from Baldwins to Afflecks in search of a hit franchise
Screenshot: Patriot Games (1992)
Image for article titled The Jack Ryan movies reboot their way from Baldwins to Afflecks in search of a hit franchise
Screenshot: Clear And Present Danger (1994)

When Affleck and Pine take over, they make even clearer the meta dimensions of a character who is inevitably thrust into ever-bigger, more central roles in geopolitical affairs. As Ryan, and like Ryan himself, the leading actors are auditioning for a leading-male status that’s essentially a foregone conclusion in every entry. One of the most telling and self-aware exchanges in the whole series comes in Clear And Present Danger, where Ford’s Ryan mentions that he’s only been summoned to the White House once and “hated it.” His boss and mentor swiftly and clearly corrects him, cutting through the reluctant-hero routine: “No, you didn’t.” In other words, no one signs up for this work without relishing it at least a little. Granted, the later entries protest a bit less; in Sum and Shadow Recruit, Ryan doesn’t necessarily feel on track for the presidency, the way Ford’s version does. (Indeed, there was no stopping Fake President Ford: In 1997, around the time another Jack Ryan movie should have arrived, and not long after the publication of the Ryan-as-president book Executive Orders, Ford instead played a besieged movie president in Air Force One, essentially a less wonky and more cornball-crowdpleasing version of a Clancy plot.) Affleck sells the character’s dorky, gawky side, while Pine emphasizes his Captain Kirk-like improvisation skills. Still, all of the Jack Ryan movies have some degree of false modesty about their super-competent hero who’s almost always right and only ever criticized for being a Boy Scout.

That uprightness isn’t unusual for a certain brand of movie hero, and there’s something endearing about the complete counterpoint Jack Ryan forms against James Bond. Bond is promiscuous, confident, and violent. Ryan is married, modest, and analytical; his “shaken, not stirred” is “I’m just an analyst.” Ryan’s good-guy righteousness, though, is undermined by his utter replaceability. A new James Bond is announced, hyped, and written about with much fanfare; a new Jack Ryan is issued. His supporting players, too, are plugged in and out with all the ceremony of USB drives, and are similarly inclined toward expositional data rather than personality traits. These movies are packed with terrific actors, including James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman (as separate characters with similar functions), Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber (as the same character with slightly different affects), James Cromwell and Donald Moffat (somehow not playing the same president), plus Samuel L. Jackson, Philip Baker Hall, Tim Curry, and Sam Neill. Somehow, there are only a handful of memorable performances among them.

Image for article titled The Jack Ryan movies reboot their way from Baldwins to Afflecks in search of a hit franchise
Screenshot: The Sum Of All Fears (2002)

For viewers conscious of how adult-oriented thrillers have been crowded out of the multiplex, it may be enough to simply watch these various actors pretend to get riled up over made-up political machinations with tentative-at-best connections to real-life issues. Paramount seems to think this audience mostly stays home anyway: The company has shunted the Jack Ryan character off to television and sold the latest movie reboot, Without Remorse, starring Michael B. Jordan as special-ops fighter John Clark (previously played by Dafoe and Schreiber), to Amazon, where Jack Ryan also streams. The TV version has a lot of the same moves as its cinematic cousins—it once again reverts Ryan back to a young, humble analyst who isn’t looking for field work but gets sucked in anyway; gives him data-based but outlying theories that are usually right; and pairs him with an older Black mentor (Wendell Pierce, playing the James Earl Jones character from the movies)—while trying harder than ever to root the action in the contemporary fight against terrorism. Mostly, it’s just more violent.

That Jim from The Office can credibly portray Ryan feels almost like a parody of the role’s interchangeability. (And yes, with a shift in performer, Ryan’s clever maneuvering can occasionally resemble office pranks.) The show accidentally suggests that the world may not have been missing out on a more robust series of Jack Ryan movies, because the more time Ryan spends on screen, the less he seems to stand for anything beyond a purely theoretical construct. He embodies the vague idea of doing the right thing, in service of a CIA too blandly heroic to house detailed characters.

So while the Ryan of Clancy’s books eventually ascends to the presidency—and, in the post-Clancy books, seems to spend the equivalent of approximately 10 terms in that position—the filmed versions keep circling back to the starting line. None of the actors have yet gone the full Reagan. Maybe the Jack Ryan movies keep rebooting out of self-defense. With a new Ryan almost every time, they’ll never have to sit with their own watery political implications, or even decide what they are.

Final ranking:

1. The Hunt For Red October (1990)
2. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
3. Clear And Present Danger (1994)
4. The Sum Of All Fears (2002)
5. Patriot Games (1992)