In the novels of Tom Clancy, Jack Ryan is a former marine turned CIA analyst turned politician, a capable (if not particularly deep) hero and mouthpiece for Clancy’s political and military viewpoints. Although he thrived on the page (even becoming president at one point), his on-screen career has been a little less consistent. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is the fifth film about the character, but Chris Pine is the fourth actor to portray him and the previous films have run the gamut from action masterpieces to total duds.
So it’s time to take a look back at the Jack Ryan films and put them head-to-head. Which film is the best? Which actor was the best Ryan? The only way to figure this out is to do what Ryan himself would do: dive into the action headfirst. Not because we want to, but because it’s our duty.
The Hunt for Red October
The Story: CIA analyst Jack Ryan is called into action when respected Soviet submarine commander Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) vanishes with his nation’s newest achievement: the completely silent Red October. While most believe Ramius is a mad man with violent intentions, Ryan rightfully believes that he is attempting to defect to the United States. Naturally, our way-over-his-head hero has to get to the Red October before the U.S. military or the Russian Navy.
Jack Ryan: Before he became a bloated and washed-up has-been and before his late rebirth as a deadpan comic genius, Alec Baldwin was everything you could want in a Hollywood leading man. Lean, good-looking and blessed with one of cinema’s greatest gravelly voices, Baldwin has screen presence to spare in The Hunt for Red October, where he has the difficult task of acting alongside Sean Connery and not looking like a total chump. However, what makes Baldwin’s work as Ryan so terrific isn’t movie-star swagger — it’s that Baldwin nails the “reluctant hero” side of the character. His Jack Ryan would much rather be sitting in a comfortable desk writing papers on naval history, but when duty calls, he mans up, suits up and nearly gets himself killed time and time again. There’s a touch of John McClane in Baldwin’s Jack Ryan (which isn’t surprising that director John McTiernan previously made Die Hard) that keeps him grounded and relatable throughout all of the action.
Overall Quality: The Hunt for Red October is over 20 years old and aside from some dated model work and a few rough composite shots toward the end of the film, it honestly looks like it hasn’t aged a day. Even with a 135-minute running time, the movie just flies, with every scene deepening the mess that our characters are in and ramping up the tension to unbearable levels. It may not have the excessive action or violence of McTiernan’s other masterpieces, but straightforward thrillers that never speak down to their audiences simply don’t get any better than this.
The Story: While in London on business, Jack Ryan happens across an IRA-led kidnapping attempt on members of the British royal family and foils it, taking a bullet and killing one of the gunmen in the process. His random act of heroism instantly makes him a target from a nefarious cell of Irish bad guys, including the brother of the man he killed (Sean Bean), who wants to take our Ryan and and his family for personal reasons.
Jack Ryan: After Alec Baldwin declined to reprise the role of Jack Ryan, the part was given to the one and only Harrison Ford (who actually turned down the part during the development of The Hunt for Red October). Like Baldwin, Ford isn’t given a particularly deep character to play: he’s a strong, good guy without too many sharp edges who dives into sticky situations because he’s in the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time. Harrison Ford is pretty much playing Harrison Ford, which is fine since Alec Baldwin pretty much played Alec Baldwin. However, Baldwin’s go-to persona fits the white-collar Ryan better than Ford, who’s a little too tough and intimidating to convincingly play historian (which always felt like the big joke of the Indiana Jones movies). It isn’t surprising when Ford’s Ryan gets into a gunfight or gets in a boat chase through a raging storm — it happens to him because he’s Harrison Ford and that’s what Harrison Ford does in movies. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Ford’s Ryan, but by his very nature, he’s just a little more generic and a little more familiar.
Overall Quality: Patriot Games is a solid, efficient thriller that sets small goals, accomplishes them and moves on. It’s satisfying but disposable, lacking the relentless pace of its predecessor but delivering familiar, enjoyable goods. Gone are the global politics and tricky dilemmas of The Hunt for Red October and in are a far more straightforward story and a bad guy who wants revenge. And that’s fine — Harrison Ford is always fun to watch in a role like this and director Phillip Noyce shoots everything with the competence you’d expect from a professional journeyman — but it does mean this is a less complicated, less intelligent, less interesting and generally lesser film in every way.
Clear and Present Danger
The Story: When a wealthy friend of the president is murdered by a drug cartel, America begins a top secret, covert and highly illegal war in the jungles of Colombia. Jack Ryan, now a major CIA honcho, finds himself literally thrust into the action and must find a way to stop (and possibly expose) the conflict while bringing the troops home alive.
Jack Ryan: Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan still has the major problems seen in Patriot Games. He’s a little too tough, a little too macho and a little too assured in the action scenes to come off as an office guy in over his head. However, the film itself does the character and Ford a ton of favors. The script gives most of the major action beats to the mysterious commando John Clark (Willem Dafoe) and his team of soldiers, letting Ryan spend most of the film wading through political intrigue. Ford still doesn’t look at home in a suit behind a computer, but the character himself is better utilized since none of his time is being wasted on a slightly hackneyed revenge plot.
Overall Quality: Clear and Present Danger isn’t as focused as The Hunt for Red October, but its sprawling, morally gray story is far more intriguing than Patriot Games. By making Jack Ryan a player in a larger story and not the central focus of the narrative, the film is more about what Tom Clancy’s was always good at: telling a terrific yarn full of fascinating tidbits of military and political detail. If there’s anything to really complain about, it’s the fact that the climactic action sequence is a bit of a dud, especially since a convoy ambush in the middle of the film is the single best setpiece in a Jack Ryan movie so far. It’s certainly not perfect, but Clear and Present Danger is evidence that Ford’s take on the character could have (and should have) continued for a few more films.
The Sum of All Fears
The Story: In this reboot of the character, Jack Ryan is a young and unknown CIA analyst whose expertise on a Russian politician thrusts him into an international debacle when said politician takes power. Various twists and turns reveal a plot by neo-Nazis to pit Russia and the United States against each other, starting World War III and clearing the status quo for a new world order. As usual, no one believes our intrepid, bookish hero and he’s forced to go above and beyond the call of duty to save the day.
Jack Ryan: The best thing about Ben Affleck’s portrayal of Jack Ryan is his deliberate attempt to bring the character back to some sense of grounded normalcy. After the action hero years of Harrison Ford, it’s nice to see a Ryan who is more at home in an office and behind a computer than in the field fighting bad guys. However, the performance is ultimately a failure because the movie wants to have its cake and eat it too, introducing Ryan as an awkward white-collar guy and making his transition into action hero feels way too easy. It doesn’t help that the screenplay leaves Affleck floundering at every moment. While Alec Baldwin made up for this always thinly written character with sheer gravitas, Affleck just seems lost, a pretty face whose job is to react to the more interesting character actors around him.
Overall Quality: There are a few good moments in The Sum of All Fears and most of them come courtesy of Liev Schrieber as Tom Clancy hero John Clark and the great Ciarian Hinds as the morally grey Russian president. But there’s no getting around it: this movie is a mess. Sluggishly paced and just plain boring, the film constantly shoots itself in the foot, undercutting every interesting plot development with nonsense subplots about Ryan’s personal life. Clancy’s books were always procedurals first and the films are at their best when they focus on military and political details. There’s possibly a strong, alternate dimension version of this film floating out there with a stronger lead and a revised screenplay. The worst thing about this movie is that you can see that version lurking just below the surface here, struggling to get out.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
The Story: After surviving a helicopter crash that nearly kills him, young Marine Jack Ryan is offered a top-secret position in the CIA. Working on Wall Street by day and protecting the country by night, he soon discovers a plot to cripple the United States economy and send the world spiraling into a second Great Depression.
Jack Ryan: Chris Pine has all of the components to make a great Jack Ryan. He has the necessary movie-star looks and charm to spare, but he’s also perfectly capable of playing the smartest guy in the room. In fact, the best moments in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit are those that ask Pine to balance being an egghead with being a spy. Like Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October, Pine’s Ryan has no business being out in the field, but he doesn’t even hesitate when he’s asked to dive into danger head first. Well, at least that’s how his Ryan is for the first half of the film. In the film’s best scene, Pine murders a potential assassin and can’t shake off what he’s done, so it’s incredibly odd that he spends the rest of the film playing the standard action hero and getting in car chases like some kind of seasoned professional. It’s insulting how Ryan transforms from rookie to Liam Neeson in a matter of frames and it completely throws away the solid work Pine turns in during the first hour of the film.
Overall Quality: Where to start? Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit has no pulse. At least The Sum of All Fears had the nerve to play dirty, to create villains whose scheme was actually menacing and worthy of an entire movie. There are only a handful of scenes in this film that don’t feel like something we’ve seen a thousand times before and those handful of scenes do not justify 105 minutes of your time. If the dull story and repetitive action don’t drive you nuts, the film’s technical incompetence will. This is an ugly, badly shot film filled with inexplicable ADR and one-too-many moments of egregious product placement. Chris Pine could have been a great Jack Ryan. He deserved better.
Final Jack Ryan Ranking:
1. Alec Baldwin
2. Harrison Ford
3. Chris Pine
4. Ben Affleck
Final Film Ranking:
1. The Hunt for Red October
2. Clear and Present Danger
3. Patriot Games
4. The Sum of All Fears
5. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
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