John Kransinki in "Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan: Season 2" (Kurt Iswarienko/Amazon Studios)

“Jack Ryan” returns, still clinging to an outdated action movie ethos

Tom Clancy's operative will always have an appeal to a certain audience. But he feels like yesterday's man


Melanie McFarland
November 6, 2019 11:32PM (UTC)

In his analysis of Daniel Craig’s debut as James Bond in the 2006 version of “Casino Royale,” NPR film critic Bob Mondello describes Craig as “craggy…His face isn't handsome in the way as the other Bonds,” he says, but means it as a compliment.

“I think Daniel Craig is the kind of person who wouldn't turn heads as he walked down the street,” Mondello adds later. “And so you believe that he could sort of slip in there and make things happen.”

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There’s a case to be made that modern cinematic versions of special agents may be most informed by Craig’s Bond, or Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, whose cinematic debut pre-dates Craig’s by a few years.  But Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan pre-dates them both by a fair stretch, introduced to moviegoers and readers in the 1980s.

The late Clancy designed Jack Ryan to be a reluctant hero driven by will to do what’s right and honorable, informed by a very Cold War view of American justice. Like Bond, a number of actors have played him.

John Krasinski’s take on the role, however, is entirely in alignment with the way we’d view such a man in 2019, a financial analyst working for the CIA who finds a trail to a renowned Middle Eastern terrorist in Season 1 by following the money.

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The second season opens with Jack in the supposedly safer arena of Capitol Hill, but when his work takes him to Venezuela, a country teetering on the verge of economic collapse and ruled by a despotic president, Nicolás Reyes (Jordi Mollà). The Venezuelan leader is desperate to hang on to power by any means necessary even if it means killing anyone in his way.

When his kill list takes out someone close to Jack, his diplomatic mission suddenly gets bloodier and more personal – again, a very late ‘80s, and 1990s action film concept.

Season 2 of “Jack Ryan” debuted on Amazon Prime a day early, on October 31 – and only a few days after a special ops team killed Isis leader Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria.

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The first season’s action feels more relevant to the events at hand that the current mission on “Jack Ryan,” which draws influence from headlines about the ongoing crisis over the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro’s presidency after the results of Venezuelan’s May 2018 election were disputed. Maduro swore himself in, but only China, Cuba, Iran, Russia, Syria, and Turkey recognize him as the country’s president.

The United States, meanwhile, recognizes Juan Guaidó as the country’s acting president until fair elections can be held, joined by Canada and part of a group comprised of 54 countries. It is a delicate situation in other words, and probably wouldn’t be helped by the sight of Jack Ryan and a group of American commandos, say, storming the presidential palace on a TV series.

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But the American viewer might only be concerned if they were looking further south than our own border (and “Narcos” has that covered). To the average consumer Jack Ryan is a pleasing fiction because the character tells the best version of the American story, where even off-the-books operations in foreign jungles happen for the right reasons and end in a way that appears to put the world back in balance.

Krasinski’s overall likability allows co-showrunners Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland to get away with some broad license here, but even though the character itself has evolved in recent years  to fit the post-9/11 view of the world, the second season still lands with more dissonance because of the very aspect that should make the character feel more relevant – that is, its proximity to reality.

The emotional buffer between the events of the script and what is actually happening should feel veil-thin. This informed the tension in past movie version of Clancy novels. But the problem may be that Krasinski’s Jack Ryan is closely informed by other actor’s interpretations of the character, namely Harrison Ford’s. Amazon’s “Jack Ryan” still clings to an outdated action movie ethos that relies on a general ignorance about the way the world actually is versus a version of how it ought to be when Michael Bay was redefining action movie bombast. (Bay is an executive producer on the series.)

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Don’t get me wrong. There’s an audience that loves this series and the Clancy oeuvre in all of its guises with the same amount of gusto as old Westerns. The nostalgia cementing its appeal is very much the same and rooted in the image of America being the noble sheriff on a frontier that would tumble into savagery if not for its efforts to hold it together, whether subtle or brazen. It’s telling that Jack is activated in this season not by politics but by a thirst for payback. He wants somebody to hurt, but only the right people.

Another series about a counterterrorism agent also debuted recently on Amazon, features a storyline based on actual events, and revolves around a task force’s efforts to foil an ISIS plot. “The Family Man” appears to be very popular in other parts of the world (Amazon, like other streaming services, doesn’t release its viewership data), but odds are that most Amazon Prime viewers are watching even though Americans haven’t heard of it.

But the series' main character, intelligence officer Srikant Tiwari (Manoj Bajpai) has much in common with Jack Ryan, with the added bonus of having to contend with a family that has no idea of what he does. This leads to a number of comedic exchanges as, for example, his wife gripes at him for coming home late or passing off responsibility to care for his school-aged children.

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He has no choice but to take it because he’s in the middle of a mission. And while this scenario sounds a lot like a drawn-out version of the overbearing mom bothering her super-spy son in that insurance company TV ad, it works because it gets at the mundane aspect of this kind of wok. Sri and his partner JK (Sharib Hashmi) enjoy perfect buddy-cop chemistry, and there’s a fair share of operatic melodrama playing out here, which was never a problem in those earlier seasons of “24.”

What the series does well, however, is depict how intimately a concern the ISIS threat is in India’s cities. “The Family Man” finds its power in showing how its characters deal with dangers in their midst and still contend with the day-to-day pressures of living. Terror is not a distant concern that people in other countries have to deal with. It is quite literally right on the doorstep of the protagonists.

And that’s very much a relevant factor to the show’s appeal. Much in the way Craig works as Bond is because his legendary spy can walk right past us on the street without attracting much notice, the action builds in everyday streets, and the drama plays out at home and on missions. The new terrorist threats operate in the same way. The villain in “Family Man,” an ISIS fighter, is able to wriggle out of custody because he knows that the way to deal maximum damage is to get close to people and gain their trust. Precisely the kind of fright that unnerves viewers in an age of stolen identify and deception.

Given how closely the production value and structure mimics that of the American action genre (although India, obviously, is home to one of the globe’s most thriving film industries) I’d imagine the main barrier to “The Family Man” going mainstream in the United States is that of language – Hindi is the language primarily spoken in the series, as it should be – and the fact that Bajpai is still unfamiliar to American audiences.

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It may become more widely known if it is picked up for a second season. “Jack Ryan” has already been cleared for a third, leading a person to wonder which country will be the setting for his next clear and present but distant danger. Given the anxieties about domestic terrorism’s threat these days, may I suggest the United States?

Season 2 of "Jack Ryan" and Season 1 of "The Family Man" are now streaming on Amazon Prime.


Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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