Jack Ryan review: Amazon's action analyst must spy harder

Jack Ryan sees things others don't, but we've seen it all before.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films | TV | Movies | Television | Technology
Richard Trenholm
5 min read
Jan Thijs

The two men at the heart of Amazon's new geopolitical thriller Jack Ryan carry the scars of past violence on their backs. The eponymous spy and his terrorist nemesis are both marked by the legacy of war in the Middle East, a war that only escalates and mutates in a spiral of horror.

Fortunately Jack Ryan is here to save the day. Again. Sure, he's had five attempts at becoming a thing on the big screen and none of them have launched a Bond, Bourne or Mission: Impossible-style franchise, but maybe things'll be different on TV?

Based on the character created by best-selling author Tom Clancy, Jack Ryan stars John Krasinski of The Office and A Quiet Place alongside Wendell Pierce from The Wire. The eight-episode series streams on Amazon Video from 31 August, and a second season has already been confirmed.

Washington. Present day. Jim from The Office rides his bike past some famous landmarks and one-straps his backpack as he heads into the office, which turns out to be the CIA. Jim -- oops, I mean Jack -- monitors monetary transactions in Yemen, which primarily involves staring at twin monitors, fiddling with a baseball and very intently writing things on Post-It notes. We're informed several times that Jim -- sorry, Jack -- is the smartest guy in the room, and indeed he proves very good at answering quiz show questions and spotting infinitesimal clues the second he walks into a terrorist atrocity.

Jim -- dammit, I mean Jack! -- is convinced a ghostly Bin Laden-like overlord is both real and worse than ISIS. That puts our analytical hero in conflict with his new boss, Bunk from The Wire, who's been demoted to Ryan's department of hipster analysts. But when they follow the money it looks like there might be something to Ryan's suspicions, and the next thing you know our hero is bundled onto a plane to Yemen to join in the interrogation of two suspects.

Jack Ryan unashamedly busts out all the familiar hallmarks of a spy drama. Chaps with beards trail other chaps with beards through crowded African marketplaces. People with lanyards frown intently at computers in glass-walled offices. Loads of suits sit around big tables frowning at satellite photos. Locations are spelled out in beeping computer text. There's grimy interrogation cells and SWAT creeping up stairwells and militiamen firing RPGs off the back of pickup trucks. 

By the time a standoff ends with our hero grabbing a grenade and saying "If I drop this, we all die!" it's fairly clear what this show is about and what it will continue to be about. I watched the first three episodes and they delivered absolutely zero surprises.

Still, it's about as slick and cinematic as this kind of thing gets. You can definitely see where your Amazon Prime subscription has gone: the first episode's big firefight in the desert is as epic and violent as the very similar movie 13 Hours, which also starred Jim from the Office -- sorry, I mean John Krasinski.

As Ryan, Krasinski just about anchors the story with his ever-watchable charm, but it's something of a thankless task: all too often, Ryan is just an observer. Could it be, whisper it, that Jack Ryan as an action hero just isn't that interesting?

Clancy's bestselling character has been portrayed on the big screen before by Alec BaldwinHarrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine, and with the exception of Ford's outings twenty-five years ago none of them have captured movie audiences enough to warrant a second go-round. And yet, probably because Clancy's novels sell by the aircraft carrier-full, they just keep on trying to make Jack Ryan happen. 

The problem is, it's hard to say what distinguishes this Jack Ryan from other movies and TV shows of this ilk. Previous movies to feature the character at least added a hook -- whether it was the IRA or the drug cartels or Sean Connery on a submarine -- but this new version just plonks him into generic geopolitical plotting against enemies foreign and domestic. Clancy may have mastered the concept of the desk jockey dragged into action in his original novels, but since then we've had Homeland, Spy Game, Body of Lies, Zero Dark Thirty, The Kingdom, Hulu's The Looming Tower, Amazon's own Patriot... The list goes on. Most of those have at least some unique angle or fresh voice that Jack Ryan -- both the character and the show -- just seem to lack.


Dina Shihabi and Ali Suliman star in Jack Ryan.


The expanded length of a TV series does allow for some attempts at nuance. A major subplot involves a sympathetic look at the bad guy's family, and there's a repeated visual motif of people in the Middle East living normal happy lives until they're violently disturbed by the arrival of armed men. It's a nice choice too to make Ryan's boss a Muslim.

But like many shows making entertainment out of real-world violence, the show glosses over a few things that could bear closer inspection. Like the fact the story begins with the main character waltzing into a sovereign country to torture some guys who've been kidnapped off the street. Or like how even on home soil our intrepid heroes are depicted rolling into predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods in armoured vehicles as if it's enemy territory. 

And in episode 3, the introduction of an Air Force drone crew gives us characters literally watching the horror unfold on TV screens -- just like we are. In the show, they find righteous redemption through an illegal drone strike. In real life, 44 children killed in the bombing of a school bus last week are only the latest casualties of the civil war in Yemen, not to mention those killed directly by US and UK drone strikes in the country and across the globe.

The character of Jack Ryan carries the scars of his past. But Amazon's derivative setup can't find anything unique or fresh to do with the character, if there is anything unique or fresh about him. The show is glossy and expensive and pretty functional if you like this sort of thing, but not even Jim from The Office can make Jack Ryan fun. 

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