‘Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan’ Updates Classic Spy for the War on Terror

Jack Ryan was always a brainier James Bond. Amazon’s latest series takes the character first created by the late Tom Clancy in a series of high-tech novels and updates him into a slick series. Clancy’s books were highly influenced by the politics of the Cold War, especially his debut, “The Hunt for Red October,” which was turned into a hit movie starring Alec Baldwin (as Ryan) and Sean Connery. For season one of “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” Amazon’s showrunners firmly place the character in the modern era of Middle East conflict and War on Terror politics. But this isn’t a serious study on geopolitics, like its cinematic predecessors, “Jack Ryan” is best watched as a series-long action movie.

John Krasinski plays Ryan, a former Marine and Wall Street banker with a few degrees and a lot of craftiness. He now works for the CIA as an analyst of global economies. Ryan has lately been tracking financial dealings revolving around Yemen which could be tied to a mysterious, ominous figure known as Suleiman. If Ryan’s calculations are correct, this Suleiman could be the next major terrorist leader ala Osama Bin Laden. This kind of work leaves little room for a social life, including a pretty young doctor, Cathy Mueller (Abbie Cornish), the daughter of a former Wall Street mentor of Ryan’s. New at the CIA offices is James Greer (Wendell Pierce), who has been demoted to running Ryan’s department after falling out of grace in Syria. Greer is at first suspicious of Ryan’s theories involving Suleiman until the proof becomes undeniable. He sends the analyst to Yemen to interrogate some captured suspects, one of whom, Ali (Ali Suliman), stages a bloody and bold escape from a U.S. military base. It turns out Ali was Suleiman himself, and now Ryan must go on a globe-trotting marathon to grab him. Suleiman is based out of a massive compound somewhere in Syria, where guerrillas who were once fighting Assad are now plotting a major attack elsewhere.

Tom Clancy used to be for spy novels what Michael Crichton was for sci-fi thrillers. This series is no exception. “Jack Ryan” is a slick, nerdy kind of action thriller. For fans of the original films and books, it is an updated, extended take on the Tom Clancy world and ethos. Jack Ryan is like Captain America in a suit and tie, fully committed to the cause while working long hours, downing coffee and somehow figuring out on his own intricate financial connections leading to major terrorist networks. Ryan is a character who has been played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine. Krasinski now fills the office shoes bringing his own personality, while preserving the almost humorless, Boy Scout profile. Jack Ryan is an action hero for people who score straight A’s and finished college ahead of time. In one scene he watches Jeopardy while doing work, correctly guessing out loud answers to obscure questions. Even his love life plays like a “Professional Guide to Success” pamphlet. His love interest, Cathy, must of course be a famous epidemiologist just a few steps away from a Nobel Prize.

So how does a show make such a character entertaining? What “Jack Ryan” does well is craft fascinating supporting roles and place the story in an intriguing international setting. Ryan is the all American hero, but more interesting is the character of Suleiman, who runs a compound with armed men who look like an Islamist militia, but are more complex in their ideology and aims It is commendable that the show tries to intelligently write its Muslim characters beyond stereotypes. In the old Jack Ryan movies Soviet commanders, Irish terrorists and Colombian drug lords were the bad guys, mostly written as one dimensional. But here there is greater effort at crafting better characters. Suleiman’s wife, Hanim (Dina Shihabi), is devoted to him because he used to be a good man, but now that the Syrian cause is lost, she wonders what he is dedicated to. The scenes between the two are written with strong, dramatic tension. Suleiman himself isn’t written like a cardboard villain, simply seeking to wreck destruction for no reason other than world domination. Instead we see early on that he and his brother were nearly killed in the 1982 wars in Lebanon, and as the season develops there is the important theme of how militants and radicals are produced by experiences. When Suleiman is shown alone, he isn’t psychotic, but an almost empathetic character. We may not agree with his actions, but the show makes the effort to give him plausible reasons for wanting to become an extremist. In general the show tends to veer away from the “everything America does is right” tone of the original Jack Ryan movies. Another character, Victor (John Magaro), is haunted by his work operating drone strikes and the consequences of killing from afar.

But “Jack Ryan” is above all an action series and there’s plenty of high-octane explosions, escapes from captivity and street chases. The show tries to give Ryan more of an action background. In this variation he is an Afghan war vet with scars all over his body. Time at the office has made him a bit rusty and part of the fun of the show is watching him grapple with being on the field again. The show has fun with the idea of the government being an all-seeing force. As Ryan tries to flirt with Cathy at a dinner party a naval helicopter lands on the mansion grounds to scoop him away. The action itself isn’t shot without tension and there are moments of classic, thriller suspense, like a raid in a Paris apartment where a suicide bomber decides not to press the button at the last minute, but then…

“Jack Ryan” is a thriller fine-tuned for the times, where technology is now firmly combined with old fashioned stunts and international vendettas. It’s never a bore, even when it takes itself more seriously than the material demands. Back in the day, guys like Bond, with their shaken but not stirred martinis, saved the world, now it’s the guy with the killer GPA. TV is the perfect format for this title, because you can just keep Jack Ryan going and going.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” season one premieres Aug. 31 on Amazon.