While everyone is both disappointed that “No Time to Die” has been pushed back to November but also eagerly awaiting Daniel Craig’s final Bond movie, there’s a quieter milestone for a different spy franchise: believe it or not, its been 30 years (as of March 2nd) since “The Hunt for Red October” was the first movie based on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series.
And even though there have been only five movies in the loosely connected series, there have been four separate Jack Ryans. In fact, Harrison Ford is (so far) the only actor to portray Jack Ryan in two separate movies…which is funny since his overly stolid, none-too-cerebral take on the character is my least favorite version of Ryan. Still, what John Le Carre is to James Bond; the American version of that is Jack Ryan to Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. Ryan is a thinking man’s spy whose plots could actually happen, and the Ryan universe is actually concerned with human behavior. All the Ryan movies are worth watching at least once.
My least favorite “Jack Ryan” movie: “Patriot Games”…Although none of the “Jack Ryan” movies are bad, this has–to me–the least going on. It’s more of a straightforward 90’s thriller than the strategic chess games we see in every other Ryan movie. This plot is also based on a chance encounter Ryan has early on (I hate franchise movies where the hero just happens to be at the right place at the right time or wrong place at the wrong time), kicking off an increasingly far-fetched series of events, before ending in a downright over-the-top, ludicrous encounter at Ryan’s house. I’m also not crazy about Harrison’s take on the character. Ryan is supposed to be an analyst and Harrison doesn’t totally convey the intellectual curiosity of the character the way all the other takes have. Grade: B-
4. “The Sum of All Fears”…In this movie, rightwing European neo-nazis are hellbent on creating a nuclear war between Russia and the United States. This doesn’t make more sense in the movie than it does reading that sentence (in Clancy’s novel, the real villains are Islamic terrorists), and it makes even less sense nearly 20 years later where it increasingly appears Russia controls far-right movements in Europe, not the other way around. Still, I enjoyed the tit-for-tat between a new Russian President (this must have also been written back when people believed Putin could be a moderate, further dating the material) and America following a nuclear disaster. And I actually really liked Ben Affleck’s take on the role; he is much closer to Baldwin’s jocular nerd than you might think. Grade: B
3. “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”…After three movies with largely irrelevant villains (a neo-nazi Austrian billionaire scheming nuclear war, an-ex Cuban spy scheming to take over a South American cartel, an IRA power grab), “Shadow Recruit” is the first Ryan movie since “Red October” that features Russian villains. That’s even more impressive when you consider this is the newest movie (2014), and made well after Hollywood officially declared “surrender” to fascist governments in an effort to capture more foreign box office dollars; forcing a series of “rogue” actors (i.e. irrelevant terrorists, mercenaries, and arms dealers) to be behind all the world’s action-movie evil.
I mean, it’s no small thing to have an actually relevant plot in a major spy movie today–just look at the “Mission Impossible,” Bond, and “Bourne” movies (watching Matt Damon’s spy, you wouldn’t think an evil person on this planet is allowed to work anywhere but the CIA). As the titular spy, Chris Pine splits the difference between Ford’s derring-do and the Baldwin/Affleck geekier (and more accurate) takes. That’s okay, but a heavily-featured romantic subplot with Kiera Knightley drags the pacing down, especially when Kenneth Branaugh’s calculating villain is waiting in the wings to stir up more compelling conflicts. Grade: B+
2. “Clear and Present Danger”…I’ve dissed Harrison Ford’s take on Ryan several times in this article–and he behaves like a literal Boy Scout here with a moralistic ending that Frank Capra might’ve written for Jimmy Stewart seventy years ago–but the difference between this and “Patriot Games” is that Ford’s Ryan isn’t really driving the bulk of the action here. While he’s largely in DC, a genuinely interesting plot unfolds between a South America super-cartel, an ex-Cuban intelligence officer trying to seize control of it (sort of an anti-Jack Ryan, which is intriguing), shady Washington power players, and the effortlessly-excellent Willem Dafoe. It’s a complex tale of revenge and counter-retribution, and (to me) the most enjoyable part of Clancey’s work is the moves and counter-moves of trying to game out a conflict, almost like a boy playing with G.I. Joes–and I mean that in a good way. Grade: A-
Best: “The Hunt for Red October”…You probably saw this pick coming, but it truly is the best one. In it, Alec Baldwin’s intuitive CIA analyst has to figure out Sean Connery’s rogue Russian submarine captain’s true intentions. Is the hunted submarine trying to start WWIII (as the Russians claim, enlisting America’s aid in sinking it) or does it secretly want to defect, as Ryan believes? Even if you can guess the answer—is it likely that Sean Connery plays a villain?—this is still an admirably slow boil that eventually builds to a tense, riveting ride. One of the best aspects of Ryan thrillers is that they take their time setting things up in a realistic world, so that the third-act action feels earned and shocking. Grade: A
Note on the continuation of the Ryan series: Although the character of Jack Ryan is on TV instead of the big screen, the Ryan-world supporting character of John Clark (played by Dafoe in “Clear and Present Danger,” and Liev Schreiber in “The Sum of All Fears”) will get the big screen treatment in “Without Remorse” which is scheduled to open in September. If the Coronavirus doesn’t completely screw up that release, it’ll be one of my most anticipated movies of the Fall since Michael B. Jordan is playing John Clark (who in many ways is a more intriguing character than Jack Ryan himself), the director of “Sicario 2” is helming, and–best of all–red hot screenwriter/director Taylor Sheridan (of “Sicario,” “Hell or High Water,” and “Wind River” fame) wrote the script.