“Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” is Amazon Video’s latest release for its Prime subscriber base. The show is billed as a prequel of sorts to the Clancy novels of the 1980s and early 1990s. But despite an opening scene set in the early 1980s prior to the original novels, this is not a true prequel. Instead, it’s a modern day reboot, with a hipster Jack Ryan accidentally analyzing his way into situations in Yemen and the Middle East, instead of Cold War zones.
The show is well crafted, and expensive enough to stand beside its big screen brethren from the 1990s and early aughts, but fans of the long-running franchise may be disappointed by the series’ plotlines, which have been dumbed down, perhaps due to fears that a modern audience would not keep up. This move undermines what could have been a win-win scenario for Amazon. Instead, like most of Amazon’s fare, it winds up another expensive-looking but just so-so show.
The show is well crafted, and expensive enough to stand beside its big screen brethren from the 1990s and early aughts, but fans of the long-running franchise may be disappointed by the series’ plotlines.
Using prequels to revive series which have reached their natural endpoints is not always a winning proposition. Prequels in general are dicey, which is why HBO is taking its time creating one for “Game of Thrones.” Paramount, which owns the rights to the Clancy franchise, doesn’t seem to have wanted to risk something that would potentially have been compared to the 1970s-era FX hit “The Americans.” So the new Jack Ryan, though still a CIA analyst whose analyzing causes him to be sent on missions he insists he’s not qualified for, is fighting the never ending War on Terror instead of the Cold War, and biking to work and drinking Starbucks at his desk.
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John Krasinski is the fifth actor to play this part after Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine. Like Baldwin’s original interpretation from 1990’s “The Hunt For Red October,” Krasinski’s Jack Ryan has the personality of a bookish if vaguely intellectual desk jockey. Several decades ago, this made for a non-traditional hero, contrasting with Hollywood’s typically brash and brawny leading men. Paramount and Amazon have decided to split the difference, giving Ryan an academic façade but the physique of Adonis (must be all that bike riding). By the second episode, Ryan is running around in Kevlar and tight shirts, his beloved computer seemingly forgotten. He and his buddy from the films, Admiral Greer (Wendell Pierce), here reimagined as a lapsed Muslim and delinquent battlefield commander, spend their time manfully butting heads. That is, when they’re not racking up frequent flier miles battling terrorists in faraway lands.
For fans of the old films, this set-up takes a little bit of time to get used to. Once everything starts to settle down, the series is mostly well-plotted, action-packed and filled with smartly twisting climaxes and fight scenes. But ungainly chunks of unnecessary exposition and too many stereotypes constantly threaten to slow the series’ momentum.
Ryan’s mission is to take down religious zealot antagonist “Suleiman,” played by Ali Suliman, who does everything he can to bring depth and nuance to what is otherwise a fleshed-out version of the “evil foreigner” trope. If viewers drank every time someone said 9/11 or Bin Laden in reference to him, they’d wind up risking alcohol poisoning before episode two. But it’s not just the “othering” of foreigners that’s a problem. The women in the series are also just as badly rendered, which is a shame since this is supposed to be a modernized update.
While Jack Ryan’s unraveling of the mystery behind Suleiman’s plans is strong, the actual details, once they are revealed, read a bit like a bingo card rendered from various seasons of FOX’s reactionary series "24:" terrorist attacks on foreign cities, chemical weapons, technological manipulation of information and weaponized biological diseases. The show tries for nuance, with Greer’s Muslim faith representing “good” Muslims, backstories for Suleiman and his brother to show how the racism of the West radicalized them, and of course, lots of high-level violence. But the show’s 9/11 obsession, presumably part of a bid to hook younger generations of viewers (and Prime subscribers) who have never known a time that was not colored in some way by the World Trade Center attacks, drags "Jack Ryan" back into jingoistic territory.
Amazon spends money like water on all of its flagship contenders, believing that cash will bring respect.
That high-level violence also wasn’t a part of the original stories. Amazon spends money like water on all of its flagship contenders, believing that cash will bring respect. In this way, “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” is no different than the ongoing alternate history dystopia “The Man In The High Castle,” or last year’s historical fiction drama “The Collection,” or Amazon’s first really successful venture, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” But where those budgets were spent on world building, costuming, or period recreations, “Jack Ryan” has spent its money on firepower, whether it needs it or not.
On the other hand, Clancy himself was a known reactionary, someone who was ready and willing to blame “the political left” in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, back before such hyper-partisanship was fashionable. If Clancy were rebooting his Jack Ryan character for the 21st century, the silent submarines and five-dimensional spy games would likely have been replaced with Middle Eastern stereotypes riding around in Isuzu pickups.
Though the series does not want to go the route of shows like “24,” it ultimately leans more towards “Mission Impossible” than Clancy’s most successful screen adaptation “Clear and Present Danger." With lucrative Clancy novels and Amazon.com movies on the line, it remains to be seen if younger viewers are going to stream the new series, however. But it might inspire them to watch the original films on cable.