Jack Ryan review: Jason Bourne and Ethan Hunt better watch their back
Cast - John Krasinski, Wendell Pierce, Abbie Cornish, Dina Shihabi, Ali Suliman
Rating - 3/5
While our other favourite spies have matured with every new screen appearance - Bond is greyer than he was back in the bathroom, Bourne’s motives have evolved from the personal, and Ethan Hunt has found his one true calling - Jack Ryan seems to be stuck in the past.
What began as a jingoistic hero for the Cold War era has turned into a confused C-level everyman with little to do in his own show. Amazon Prime Video’s first real blockbuster offering as the streaming service takes a new direction in its journey - with the hope of distancing itself from those inevitable Netflix comparisons - is a workmanlike take on Tom Clancy’s evergreen CIA analyst - sort of like something Clint Eastwood would’ve made in the current phase of his career.
Watch the Jack Ryan trailer here
Jack Ryan - the show - is certainly patriotic enough to slip into Eastwood’s filmography without really raising any eyebrows. No opportunity is lost to wave a flag or two in your face, the men are mostly raggedy aficionados of heavy metal and, very problematically, the villains are Islamic terrorists.
This feels strange, especially now, when only a few days ago a CNN report about the resurfaced ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called his Eid message a ‘plea for relevance’ in a ‘fight (ISIS has) already lost’.
I don’t know which is worse -- that American shows continue to portray the Arab world as infested by terrorists, or that they insist on humanising said terrorists, perhaps in order to soften the blow of this gross generalisation. I call this a flawed approach because, as we all know, not every Muslim is a terrorist, and not every terrorist - certainly not one rooted in reality - deserves to be humanised.
And Jack Ryan’s main antagonist - if you can call him that - feels extremely real. In fact, to emphasise the threat Sheikh Suleiman poses to global security, Dr Ryan calls him ‘the next bin Laden’. Very soon, and in yet another example of just how woke this show wants to appear, Suleiman’s terrorist credentials witness an upward surge when he murders hundreds in Paris - in an attack that will surely bring back memories of the Bataclan massacre of 2015.
All this makes Amazon’s Jack Ryan feel very contemporary, which is sort of necessary for a character that has been through so many iterations, yet whose appeal has been restricted to the older generation. He has been played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and most recently by Chris Pine (in a film I quite enjoyed). By casting John Krasinski in the title role for the show, Amazon would be hoping for some of his famous goodwill to attract the younger crowd - in addition to riding on the coat-tails of the excellent year he’s enjoying.
But here lies the trouble with Jack Ryan. It feels neither here nor there - the plot feels too familiar, with very little to distinguish it from Homeland and the like, and Krasinski feels oddly restrained. His many talents are carelessly wasted in a repeat of the phenomena that I like to call the Chris Pratt Problem - which you can experience in its full glory in the two Jurassic World movies. Krasinski is capable of such range, as fans of his from The Office, and more recently A Quiet Place, would know. But Jack Ryan leaves him stranded in a desert, quite literally.
But in all fairness, it’s not entirely Krasinski’s fault either. Jack Ryan in the show is so staggeringly underwritten that several supporting characters routinely outshine him. One of them, a guilt-ridden drone pilot, reminded me of that excellent anti-war war movie, Eye in the Sky. If you haven’t seen it you must. But the actor Dina Shihabi, who plays Suleiman’s runaway wife, was a revelation. Her character arc is easily more engaging than Jack Ryan’s, which sucks for him, but works out really well for her.
While Ryan wrestles with the non-issue of having to take up arms to protect his country, Hanin must take her two daughters to safety, as they flee Syria and escape as refugees into Turkey.
Fortunately, Jack Ryan isn’t as numbskulled as similar American entertainment. The way it handles these scenes - particularly episode 6, in which several threads connect - is a sombre and responsible take on the refugee crisis. As is the show’s overarching theme of exploring America’s troubled foreign policy in the Middle East. There’s a cyclical nature to events there, the show suggests. By poking their nose into matters that do not concern them, the Americans have created several self-sustaining beasts - all on the whims of the Donald Rumsfelds of the world.
And while these moments are few and far between thanks to all the loud action - perhaps executive producer Michael Bay’s influence - when Jack Ryan gets a chance to sit down and ruminate, it really works.
Six episodes were made available for review, but unlike the several other shows where closure is simply irrelevant, Jack Ryan is one of the few that I will return to.