Why Amazon's ‘Jack Ryan’ Fails to Deliver, Despite John Krasinski

Imagine if ‘Homeland’ were made for Fox News and you’ve got an idea of what to expect from Amazon Prime's high-profile new show, which is so conservative it may as well be called ‘Tom Clancy's Paul Ryan’

John Krasinski in "Jack Ryan."
Amazon Prime

You’ve got to hand it to Tom Clancy. For a writer who’s been dead five years, he sure is a remarkably prolific guy. His name is all over Amazon Prime’s new eight-part spy series “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” – including an executive producer credit that makes you believe he is still very much with us.

Certainly, his Jack Ryan character is never far from our screens. It seems like only yesterday (four years ago, actually) that Chris Pine was playing the CIA officer in an origin movie tale, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.” Maybe that’s why this expensive new series feels so derivative, despite the presence of the ever-likeable John Krasinski in the title role and some attempts to humanize the antagonist.

Clancy and Robert Ludlum were two of the most successful thriller writers of the 20th century, but they worked at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Clancy and his lead characters were conservatives and true patriots (in the books, of course, Ryan eventually becomes POTUS), while the Democrat Ludlum never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t want to turn into a novel and also created the ultimate rogue CIA operative in Jason Bourne.

I would have liked some of that Bourne identity in “Jack Ryan,” which plays it by the book over eight hours that boast excellent moments – you can pretty much set your watch by a gripping set-piece showing up 10 minutes before the end of each episode – in an otherwise incredibly formulaic thriller. Imagine if Claire Danes’ “Homeland” were made for Fox News and you’ve got an idea of what to expect here, but minus all those “deep state” references that are currently getting the far right so bent out of shape.

There really should be some kind of moratorium on origin stories. Can we all agree that you’re allowed a reboot of a character or series once every generation? Otherwise, we reach the ridiculous situation where the likes of Jack Ryan, Spider-Man, Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood – and I’d prefer to face execution by archer rather than watch the latest film version of that – are reinvented every few years, until one eventually becomes a hit and they can start with the sequels.

But even allowing for the familiar beats in Clancy’s story (CIA wonk/oversized boy scout becomes killer field agent), the storytelling is so painfully predictable that it should have been called “You Do Know Jack.”

In fact, most of the enjoyment comes from successfully guessing what will happen in each scene: “Ah, this will be the bit in which he awkwardly meets the love interest”; “Oh, this is where they paint the terrorist in a sympathetic light as a loving family man”; and “This is the part where they hide a weapon in a dead man’s stomach.” OK, OK, you got me, I didn’t guess that bit – but otherwise this is all as surprising as a metronome.

Toward the end of episode one, I wrote down two words that the show kept reminding me of – and which should strike fear into any film lover’s heart: Michael Bay. Sure enough, there he is in the end credits, listed as executive producer. While the likes of Carlton Cuse (“Lost,” “Colony”) and Graham Rowland (“Fringe”) get main billing, it is Bay’s grubby pawprints I felt all over “Jack Ryan” – from the lack of subtlety and underwritten female roles to the well-handled action scenes (including a firefight in Yemen and tense chase sequence in northern Syria).

The creators deserve some credit for choosing Krasinski for the title role, even though I don’t think his outside-the-box casting quite works. I will happily admit to a man crush on him ever since, as Jim Halpert, he made Dwight Schrute’s life a comedic hell in “The Office.” He also showed he could handle action scenes with the unashamedly entertaining “A Quiet Place” earlier this year and bombastic “13 Hours” (another Bay collaboration) two years ago.

Here, though, he seems to be mimicking Ben Affleck’s performance – never a smart move – from 2002’s “The Sum of All Fears” rather than fully inhabiting the character. More distractingly, there were several scenes set in the CIA’s offices where I fully expected him to give one of Jim Halpert's trademark, Fourth Wall-breaking looks straight to camera – especially during his initial, fraught scenes with new boss James Greer (Wendell Pierce, better served in another show featuring Baltimore, “The Wire”).

While I'm talking about “The Office,” the mashup below is more entertaining than much of “Jack Ryan.” But I'm still hoping someone out there is working on another spoof – “Tom Clancy's Paul Ryan.” After all, these two Ryans have a lot in common: Both are conservatives; both like to work out; and both suffer chronic back problems, Jack due to his war service and Paul due to his lack of a spine.

Anyway, back to “Jack Ryan.” Krasinski is always an engaging presence, but that’s not really who Jack Ryan is (certainly not when gruff old Harrison Ford played him in “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger” three decades ago). Too often here, he looks like he’s remembering the death of a pet puppy as a kid rather than suggesting Ryan's supposedly sharp, analytical mind. His deductions are definitely more “No shit, Sherlock” than Holmesian in their level of cunning. 

The series deserves some credit for trying to move with the times, I suppose. One of the main CIA characters is now a convert to Islam, while the Arab terrorists are a long way from Art Malik’s one-note bad guy in 1994’s “True Lies.” Israeli viewers, incidentally, may recognize Nazareth-born Ali Suliman (“Paradise Now,” “The Looming Tower”) as the Islamic terrorist who suffered a childhood trauma in the Bekaa – presumably at the hands of the Israel Air Force – and is now plotting to literally take the fight to the West.  

Still, any drama that draws so heavily on current events faces the tricky task of creating a fiction that allows us to transcend our reality – and “Jack Ryan” doesn’t manage that. For example, early on, there’s a high-profile U.S. security meeting in which a character declares, “The president is flying in from Camp David – I need options to put in front of him by morning.”

This immediately conjures up images of President Donald Trump and thoughts that:

1. The current president probably thinks Camp David is a person;

2. The only options being put in front of the current president in the morning are Coke or Pepsi.

The screen president, when we finally see him, looks nothing like or acts like Trump – but we are still taken out of the drama by the inevitable comparisons.

Then there’s the name of Ryan’s love interest (played to rather dull effect by Australian actor Abbie Cornish): Is there any reason it has been changed from the novels’ Cathy Muller to Cathy Mueller – other than to invoke a certain special counsel currently investigating 45? Again, it takes us back to our own reality. (There’s also a horrible, extraneous subplot about a guilt-ridden U.S. drone pilot, which reaches a laughable climax in the series’ absolute nadir, episode six – which you’ll wish Amazon had delivered to your neighbor, and they’d kept it.)

If this were the show’s biggest flaw, it would be surmountable. What’s impossible to accept, though, is its use of modern-day tragedies such as the Syrian refugee crisis and terror attacks in Paris for what it hopes will be dramatic (and, ultimately, commercial) gain. It’s ironic that the U.S. government won’t let Syrian refugees in, but a Hollywood studio like co-producer Paramount believes it’s OK to milk their suffering for some blockbuster series it clearly wants to go into millions of American homes.

And if Amazon Studios believes that tastelessly depicting Syrian refugees’ distress is morally acceptable, I’ve a great idea for the show's next season (currently shooting in Colombia, but it's never too late for a rewrite): Get Jack Ryan to go undercover at an online retail giant that treats its warehouse workers like crap (allegedly) and constantly looks for loopholes to avoid paying taxes (allegedly). We can even call it “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan: Patriot Shames.”

Amazon viewers looking to stream a nuanced modern spy drama are directed instead to the far superior "Patriot," whose second season is reportedly set to air later this year.