‘Jack Ryan’ is for dads who love blinking wall maps

Seamas O’Reilly: New TV series may satisfy diehard fans but feels like a parody of itself

Not too long ago, it seemed like the world of entertainment was poised to tear itself apart over the casting of a new James Bond, especially since the announcement of Idris Elba as the titular British agent appeared imminent. Amidst a chorus of dissenting gammon-flavoured voices, it seemed for a moment that a monumental change was in the offing for the king of spies, and one of global pop culture's most endearing properties. But then Elba tweeted we shouldn't believe the hype, no announcement happened, and everyone forgot that there was ever meant to be one in the first place.

Casting a wry smile towards the God Of August News Droughts, we treated the whole episode like one of those moments where you feel like you’re about to sneeze but then don’t – and moved on with our lives.

No such mania surrounded the casting of America's foremost intelligence operative, Jack Ryan, who quietly launched his fifth screen iteration this week. Ryan is hardly of 007's stature but, beginning with Alec Baldwin in The Hunt For Red October (1990), Tom Clancy's best-selling novels have been consistently adapted for the screen across three decades, which is no small innings. The series was always more technical than its English counterpart, for suburban dads who love explosions but love men wearing lanyards standing around blinking wall maps even more.

The films likely peaked with Harrison Ford, who granted the character an unearned gravitas in Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994). From there, they slid down a greased pole of decreasing relevance, unbroken by half-hearted outings from Ben Affleck (2002's The Sum Of All Fears) and Chris Pine (2014's Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit).


Now, in a new TV adaptation, enter John Krasinski, whose Ryan is a lowly CIA analyst tracking suspicious financial activity around a super-terrorist named Suleiman. Swapping his pencil for a pistol, he re-enters the field to jaunt around the world and take him down, via a combination of beating people up and – quick, grab your heart pills – undertaking a close audit of said terrorist's international bank transactions.

Different breed

This Jack Ryan is a different breed to his forebears, who were basically either Action Dads (Sirs Baldwin and Ford) or Squinting Jaw-Owners (Messrs Affleck and Pine). Though still a former marine and therefore clearly able to handle himself, this Ryan is a quieter and, it must be said, nerdier type of spy; more balance sheets than bomb vests, assets-adjuster than assassin. In one sense, he's probably better cast than his predecessors, since one imagines the CIA's financial analysts are rarely mistaken for Gucci models or gravel-throated matinee idols.

All that being said, it is an unavoidable fact that Krasinski’s harmless bearing makes him slightly difficult to accept as a traditional action hero. To be blunt, there’s something mildly preposterous about burly terrorist commandos being outmuscled by someone who could just as easily play a Rose of Tralee escort named Declan.

If that was the least believable aspect of the show, it could be overlooked. Unfortunately, Jack Ryan also has a reckless zeal for the well-worn tropes of other, better thrillers. In fact, so many cliches are mined in the first few minutes that it genuinely feels indistinguishable from a parody of itself. Every character is stock, and not even the good stock you get in name brand cubes, but the supermarket own-brand type, which tastes like shelf dust and refuses to dissolve.

Our hero's first meeting with his boss, James Greer (Wendell Pierce), comes mere moments after they are involved in a road collision in which Ryan cycles straight into his car, setting up a lamentable taunt of "Lance Armstrong" during their first roundtable.

Ryan watches Jeopardy at home alone so we know he’s single, but shouts out the answers without looking so we know he’s smart. And it is with a heavy heart that I must inform you that he clutches a baseball at his desk in times of stress, so we know he’s just “one of the guys”.

Macho dialogue

In one bravura 15-second section, Greer mocks Ryan for doing yoga, before telling him: “Let’s get something straight right now . . . I’m not your friend . . . and I don’t owe you shit.” Were you to devise a drinking game based around the uttering of cliched macho dialogue, you’d need your stomach pumped by the end of the pilot’s first half.

And these stock tropes don’t end when we enter the show’s Middle Eastern sections and encounter men in camouflage keffiyehs scowling on sets that look like they were dragged, dropped and enlarged from Team America: World Police. This vague, generalised take on geopolitics only stops short of full offence by committing wholeheartedly to being merely tedious.

What’s enraging is that the performances are game enough, not least from Krasinski and Pierce, who are never less than solid despite the doggerel they’re made spout. They’re both performers with an effortless ability to convey wit and charisma, and seeing them having to work this hard to generate it transcends inanity to become insulting.

There is also good work from John Magaro in one of the series' more incongruous side-plots, in which we follow a drone pilot trying to numb his PTSD with a hedonistic Vegas binge, a detour that's remarkable for its embrace of a more offbeat energy than the wider show's leaden and joyless mien.

On reflection, it’s this latter fact that really rankles; despite the charismatic performers at its disposal, the show refuses to play to their strengths. There are very nearly zero laughs throughout, a fatal flaw in a show which a little levity could raise above the indistinct jumble of tropes it now comprises. Jack Ryan may not be as iconic or prestigious as his English cousin, but his series is just as much in need of a new angle.

The show may eventually find a hidden path towards revitalising the smart, savvy American spy caper, but none of the blinking maps in Jack Ryan lead the way there just yet.