Among the many fans of Tom Clancy’s best-selling “Jack Ryan” novels was Ronald Reagan, who called the first of the spy thriller series “unputdownable.” “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” Amazon Video’s new eight-episode addition to the franchise is — sorry, Mr. Reagan — quite putdownable. That’s not to say it isn’t occasionally entertaining. It has its moments. But too often, “Jack Ryan” lapses into stale, passé story patterns that leave it struggling to breathe life into a tired genre.
In his decades of book and on-screen appearances, the character Jack Ryan has been on the receiving end of dozens of Bond-like reincarnations and reinventions. Alec Baldwin’s Jack Ryan was a wide-eyed, brainy type; Harrison Ford’s a gruff, seasoned hothead. He’s been a history professor and a Wall Street banker and President of the United States. But in every iteration he’s the reluctant hero, the sort who has greatness thrust upon him. “I’m just an analyst. I write reports!” Ryan pleas, usually before being tasked with resolving all sorts of absurd, world-ending plots — like extremists taking advantage of a power vacuum in Iraq or Kremlin interference at the highest levels of the US government (OK, maybe not that absurd).
The small screen Jack Ryan (John Krasinski, “The Office”) keeps squarely in that tradition. He’s a CIA analyst on a counterterrorism team reviewing suspicious financial transactions — and presumably, writing reports — when he stumbles on a lead that takes him directly to Mousa bin Suleiman (Ali Suliman, “The Looming Tower”), a Syrian jihadist thought to be the next bin Laden. Under the guidance of his new section chief James Greer (Wendell Pierce, “The Wire”), Ryan is — as Jack Ryan is wont to be — hesitantly dragged into a chase that takes him from his humble desk at Langley to field missions in the slums of Paris and Yemen.
Krasinski’s Ryan is convincing, muscled and stoic, of course, but with an easiness and boyish charm that earn him the moniker “self-righteous Boy Scout” in the show’s pilot. Morality, unfortunately, does not a personality make — more often than not, Jack fails to come across as real or lived-in. At times, he’s saddled with lines so groan-worthy it wouldn’t feel particularly out of place for Krasinski to turn and flash a stare at the camera à la Jim Halpert, as if to say, “You see what I have to deal with here?”
He’s dealing with a lot. Pierce’s pitch-perfect Greer aside, Krasinski has little chemistry with his co-stars, least of all with Abbie Cornish (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) as Dr. Cathy Mueller, Ryan’s vanilla love interest. And the story, though well-paced, is little more than another regurgitation of every spy thriller released in the last 10 years. The extensive focus on Suleiman and on telling the story of his upbringing and radicalization seem designed to pre-empt any criticism of the show’s depictions of terrorists. But it’s still not enough to provoke thought or add needed nuance.
And given all the opportunity for real complexity and excitement the spy thriller provides, it’s almost puzzling that a streaming service with no shortage of money could produce such ordinary television. A far cry from the twisty, thoughtful cable dramas that have dealt with espionage in recent years, “Jack Ryan” more closely resembles a mid-aughts CBS procedural or Fox’s miserable, jingoistic “24.” There is none of the rewarding slow burn or meticulousness of early “Homeland,” nothing close to the delicate psychological study that was “The Americans.” Even the action sequences feel straight out of a Michael Bay (“Transformers”) film, cheap and gratuitous — to be fair, Michael Bay is, in fact, one of the show’s producers.
What’s the use in watching, anyway? We know how this ends — neatly black and white. The bad terrorists lose, the handsome good guys with guns win and our exceptional country lives to see another day. It’s no wonder Reagan liked Jack Ryan so much.