Who is Jack Ryan? No, really, I’m asking. The character, created by airport novelist and perennial dad favorite Tom Clancy, has been featured in dozens of novels, films, and video games—and, now, a TV show on Amazon. He’s been portrayed by a murderer’s row of leading men: Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October, Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, Chris Pine in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and Ben Affleck in one I’m not going to bother looking up. Now, in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, John Krasinski is the latest to take on the mantle.
But who the heck is this guy? The assorted books and adaptations tell us that Ryan is a former Marine turned CIA operative who eventually becomes president—but what are his identifying characteristics? His quirks? His likes and dislikes? Sherlock Holmes famously played the violin, smoked a pipe, and injected cocaine into his veins; other than a predilection for glaring at submarines, does Jack Ryan even have a personality?
Judging from Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, which starts streaming this Friday, he doesn’t: Ryan is the straightest of straight arrows, an incorruptible man of mettle who’s not only good at the “intelligence” part of his job, but also has abs that ripple and fists that punch. He is white, stalwart, and handsome. His hunches always play out. His bullets always hit their targets. He is kind, but he doesn’t have time for pleasantries right now.
In other words, he’s a cipher—a doddering Fox News viewer’s fantasy of what a true American hero should be. Which makes Krasinski’s job in Jack Ryan all the more difficult: Here’s an actor who, it has to be said, isn’t entirely devoid of blandness, taking on a character who’s as vanilla as it gets.
Thankfully, Krasinski manages pretty well! Combining his good-natured everyman from The Office with his strong, no-nonsense dad from A Quiet Place (and six or so of those 13 Hours abs for good measure), Krasinski delivers a Ryan who’s likable despite his most distinguishing characteristic being an obnoxious type of unflagging competence. Ryan’s the type of guy who can look at a number on a bank statement and immediately deduce the financial structure of a multinational terrorist cell.
That cell is led by Mousa bin Suleiman (Ali Suliman), and Jack Ryan spends a significant amount of its first season behind the walls of his Syrian compound, where he’s coordinating a series of attacks. To Jack Ryan’s credit, Suleiman is a fully-fledged, well-rounded character and not simply an anonymous, brown-skinned ghoul—although Suleiman’s transition from orphaned refugee to the next Osama bin Laden isn’t fully diagrammed in the six episodes that were sent to critics. It’s Hani, Suleiman’s wife, who provides the viewer’s emotional entry point to the Syrian plotline, and Dina Shihabi’s soulful performance is one of Jack Ryan’s best qualities.
But neither Shihabi nor Suleiman nor Krasinski can hold a candle to the monumentally great Wendell Pierce—aka Bunk from The Wire. Pierce plays James Greer, an officer who’s been kicked out of the exciting field of international espionage and shoved behind a boring desk at the boring CIA, where one of his boring tasks is to oversee Ryan. When Ryan gets a crucial lead on Suleiman, Greer and Ryan become an unlikely odd couple, and the show’s best moments—of which there are many—are whenever Pierce shares a frame with Krasinski, the former’s seen-it-all vet rolling his eyes at the latter’s go-getter pluck.
Even in its early stages, Jack Ryan is smart, solid television. Does it get us any closer to understanding this Jack Ryan guy? No, but it has exciting action, strong supporting characters, and Krasinski and Pierce as bickering buddy CIA cops. That’s better than anything Tom Clancy ever wrote, and it’s good enough for me.