September 5, 2018
Amazon Prime Video;
Stars John Krasinski, Abbie Cornish, Wendell Pierce, Ali Suliman, Dina Shihabi, Timothy Hutton.
Despite being one of Tom Clancy’s most enduring literary characters, including a stint as president of the United States, Jack Ryan’s cinematic exploits have not been so consistent.
Sure, adapting the books have led to a handful of entertaining espionage thrillers, all the while producers seem intent on making Jack less of the analyst he is in the books and more of a hands-on, American James Bond type of secret agent. And after a few films that seemed to follow the progression of the novels, the film series veered into prequel territory, exploring Jack’s early years with the CIA.
The most-recent film, 2014’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, wasn’t even based on one of the novels, looking in on Jack in one of his first big cases for the CIA and his rise to action-hero status. However, its lackluster box office performance cast further doubt on the future of more Jack Ryan adventures on the big screen.
Instead, the character’s handlers took the “Hannibal” route by putting the character at the center of a television series, where the story could be given a chance to develop at a reasonable pace.
The show, as with Shadow Recruit before it, focuses on the younger Jack Ryan, adjusting to a career in the CIA after an injury-shortened military career. And like that film, it’s not specifically based on any of the novels, though it seems to borrow a few elements from them, most notably Executive Orders.
Here, Jack is an analyst for a secret CIA division tracking terrorists’ finances. He believes that a new power in Islamic extremism is about to make a major move, but his evidence is sketchy and no one wants to believe him until he forces the issue by convincing the authorities to freeze the suspects’ bank accounts, thus setting off a sequence of events that exposes a new terrorist faction led by a sheik named Suleiman who wants revenge on the West for the death of his family during military strikes when he was a boy.
One key to the effectiveness of the series is the casting of John Krasinski as Jack Ryan, grounding the character as an analyst and unlikely field operative, as opposed to the films that tend to want to cast action-hero types in the part. Krasinski’s presence lends credence to both the idea that Jack could be in over his head but that, over time, he can become more adept at field work.
The show takes its time to get going as is establishes all its main characters, their motivations and locales in great detail, which can be a bit of a chore for the audience at first when the show shifts so much of its time away from what Jack is up to. One of the subplots involves Suleiman’s wife, who begins to fear the man her husband has revealed himself to be and takes steps to protect herself and her kids from his actions.
The show also spends time with Jack’s courtship of his future wife, Kathy, now played by Abbie Cornish, who is wary of their potential relationship since he keeps spouting an unconvincing cover story about a mundane State Department job to explain why he keeps getting whisked away in helicopters to travel to the Middle East and returns with fresh stab wounds.
Aside from its slow pacing in the early episodes, the biggest mark against the show is the way it relies on operational sloppiness on the part of its law enforcement contingent to allow key bad guys to keep getting away so they can carry out their plans. It would be one thing if the show were trying to depict inter-agency rivalries, a la The Looming Tower, but that’s not the case here, and the plot contrivances that do pop up are so obvious as to be distracting.
The eight-episode series also attempts to take a thoughtful examination of many different angles of the War on Terror. While noble in its intent, it does result in a few subplots that don’t seem to lead anywhere, most notably with a U.S. drone pilot who feels guilty over killing enemy combatants from 10,000 miles away.
Eventually, though, the storylines converge in a satisfying way that raises the stakes for Jack both personally and professionally, and should leave viewers eagerly awaiting the upcoming second season.