Another season of no-fun ‘Jack Ryan’
If there is an entertainment muscle in your body that twitches quickly and positively to the words “Jack Ryan” or “Tom Clancy,” there’s not a damn thing I can say to convince you not to watch season three of “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.” This season finds us back at a loose adaptation of “The Sum of All Fears,” with John Krasinski and his chin starring as CIA field agent Jack Ryan. The show adheres to the Jack Ryan playbook pretty closely. It goes like this: there’s an attack or a hint of a devastating attack, Ryan knows something or has a hunch that the hawks don’t believe, Ryan asks for time to prove his theory, the hawks give him time but not enough time, Ryan must go off the grid to stave off eventual nuclear/biological/chemical calamity, and curtain.
By the end of season three, episode one Jack’s forced into the cold after an attempt to pick up a Russian scientist with information about a secret teeny, undetectable Russian nuke program–Operation MacGuffin or something–goes awry while the Russian defense minister is simultaneously assassinated at a Czech football match. This episode is the best of what “Jack Ryan” can be: car chases, possible suitcase nukes, and Krasinski pleading with CIA muckety-mucks to just give him more time. And then everything slips into the worst of “Jack Ryan” and the worst of most Amazon spy series. It gets boring.
Three episodes in, we spend more time with the Czech PM (Nina Hoss, required by law to be in your European spy franchise), a couple of career-minded CIA desk jockeys, andthe new and scheming Russian defense minister than we do with Jack Ryan. Thankfully, Wendell Pierce gets some of that time as Ryan’s go-to ally, James Greer (previously played by the great James Earl Jones). Pierce has some fun here but not as much as he did as Bunk Moreland on “The Wire.” And a deficit of fun is generally the problem with “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.” It approaches everything with such arch seriousness that the proceedings feel numbing. It wasn’t always that way with Jack.
After a childhood of seeing Clancy, le Carré, and Ludlum line the bookshelves of the mostly ex-military men in my family, my first real exposure to Clancy and Ryan was “Die Hard” director John McTiernan’s plucky 1990 adaptation of “The Hunt for Red October.” That inspired me to read most of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels when I was a teen and young adult as they were being released. I jumped out at the end of “Debt of Honor,” after a Boeing 747 takes out most of Congress and Ryan assumes the presidency, with an occasional dip in for something like “Rainbow Six,” where Ryanverse assassin “operators” John Clark and Ding Chavez take on environmental terrorists run amok. As the ‘90s slipped into the ‘00s, Clancy’s adherence to the idea of America as the consummate good guy empire with only occasional faithless internal actors became less appealing and more jingoistic, if one hadn’t picked up a whiff of tainted apple pie already. I even felt that way, and I was active duty Army through most of the 2000s.
Affleck plopped right at the start of that downturn, starring as Jack Ryan in a just okay 2002 adaptation of “The Sum of All Fears,” that mostly felt ignored by a movie audience who were hot for hobbits and Hogwarts and less interested in “Air Force One” than they had been four years earlier. Even though the times felt very “get off my plane” for dad fiction, “TSoaF” was a hit, raking in close to four times its budget so someone wanted this type of story. People frequently deride Clancy’s fiction as conservative, which it is, and mindless, which it isn’t. Jack Ryan is a Boy Scout CIA character, teflon-ed against the moral ambiguity of intelligence work for a superpower or any hint of corruption. He’s unsexy, so it’s possible to watch him with mom, and capable, so dad’s most likely on board, too. It’s aspirational American spy fiction that frames the CIA, even if it’s just one good agent, and America as a bulwark against batshit chaos.
So why do “Hunt for Red October,” the Ford movies (“Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger”), and even “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” work in a way that “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” doesn’t? The first season of “Jack Ryan” was pretty effective in establishing the character and why he’s appealing, and Krasinski is a great fit for the role. Season one was also the last time the series had fun, though not much of it. Say what you will about any of the Jack Ryan movies, from Baldwin to Pine, but they each had moments of levity. Baldwin’s greatest strength was not only showing his intelligence but delighting in it. Krasinski never gets that chance, which is a shame, because we all know he can be a delight.
It’s not like Clancy was ever funny, or sexy. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jack Ryan spawned his kids via a virgin birth. Sex and exotica may be the realm of James Bond. The Jason Bourne movies provide no levity, but they’re also basically a two-hour chase scene. Strip Jack Ryan of his gleeful intelligence, after you’ve already shorn him of any hint of sex or doubt about his role in the world. What does that leave? Just another cardboard character dude with a gun, really. The opening credits of “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” show you how everything is going to proceed: slowly, solemnly, with reverence for service and America. Are the terrorists going to win? By episode four, I couldn’t have cared less.