Even though it's called Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan is barely about Jack Ryan. And it turns out that's a good thing for the Amazon series, because this version of Jack Ryan, played by the adorable John Krasinski, is a real snooze for being the hero.
The character beloved by baby boomer dads and airport bookstores finds his way to the small screen in another prequel -- he was previously prequelized in the film Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, starring Chris Pine -- this one set in his CIA analyst days. As the smartest person in the room no matter where he is, Jack sniffs out a potential terror plot that could be "the next 9/11" as you'll hear about 30 times in the first 10 minutes of the pilot, and he goes terrorist hunting from there. Through the first six episodes of the eight-episode first season that were given to critics in advance, it's a pretty standard entry into the genre with a few good exceptions and one glaring problem: its bland titular hero.
Come to think of it, has the character of Jack Ryan as we've come to know him ever been really great? Clancy fancied him an everyman, but maybe he's too much of an everyman, a vanilla Jack who is good at his job -- whether it be Marine, POTUS or, in this show's case, analyst at the CIA -- and then has a beer and maybe asks a girl out on a date. That's an uncomplicated formula that works a lot better in a feature film where he can chase a bad guy and throw him out of an airplane or use his smarts to understand the real motive of a Russian submarine captain (it's a Crazy Ivan!). But television is where characters are allowed to blossom into nearly real people, and Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan Jack Ryan is just there to do the right things and not much else. (How anyone got through a book with this bland hero is beyond me.)
This isn't the fault of Krasinski, who you'll be begging to Jim smirk into the camera just once. This Jack is purposefully written this way for some reason, almost as if just having some dude named Jack Ryan would be enough to get it made. (And the way Amazon is spending money on its originals and recognizable franchises, it may have actually been the case.)
No, all the interesting story is saved for the terrorists and the big bad's family, in what can only be a much appreciated overcompensation to avoid the television trope of brown-skinned evildoers from the Middle East having no interest in doing anything but screaming "Allah Akbar" and blowing up marketplaces. That is not a typo! A show about a heroic white American man battling Islamic terrorists actually put in more effort into its muslim characters than its protagonist, and it saves Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan from being merely a really expensive NCIS.
The "bad" guy is a radicalized Islamic man named Sheikh Suleiman (Ali Suliman), and creators Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland were clearly in a hurry to flesh him out as he's given the series' opening scene in a flashback to his childhood to establish him as a human being. It doesn't stop there; Suleiman often gets more screentime than Jack in many episodes as we learn how he became radicalized and how his transformation into the next bin Laden tore his family apart. He has an empathetic relationship with his brother Ali (The Visitor's Haaz Sleiman), is compassionate to his men (mostly) and goes about his business -- which is at times monstrous -- intelligently. He is everything that Jack is not, and it's why the scenes with subtitles are more interesting than those without. It also helps that Suliman and Sleiman give the best performances of the series. I'd much rather watch Tom Clancy's Sheikh Suleiman but that title obviously wouldn't fly.
Suleiman's wife Hani (Dina Shihabi) is also a major character in the series, as she flees her husband after he starts to get up to no good. She's also thought out and a highlight of the show, becoming an important piece of the plan to take down Suleiman while also more than a plot point. Jack's boss James Greer (Wendell Pierce) also has sustenance as a man demoted from a cushy post and inheriting the spirit of your stereotypical disgruntled police chief. There's even an odd side story about a remorseful combat drone pilot who has more soul in his quick appearances than Jack gets in the first six hours.
This is all to say that Jack is as dull as a spoon, and it really weighs the show down. When he's not abroad hunting baddies and lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time -- seriously, he's very lucky in the show -- he's back home in Washington, D.C., hitting on his former boss' daughter Cathy Muller (Clancy canon as Jack's future wife and First Lady, and played here by Abbie Cornish). It's an attempt to have Jack do literally anything other than his job and give him some personality, but it's so disconnected from the rest of the series that the Jack-Cathy dates feel like deleted scenes that someone forgot to cut.
Fortunately, it's apparent that Amazon dumped a whole lot of cash into camera equipment and airline tickets for Jack Ryan, because everything looks cinema-ready and the global spectacle of the multiple shooting locations is pretty. The directing, editing and sheer scope of the series are impressive and raise the bar for what a global, big-budget action-thriller should look like. The few full-bore action sequences -- particularly one shootout in an apartment building in France -- are legit and some of the best TV has seen, and lighter conflicts are bubbling over with tension thanks to a solid sense of how to craft to scene from the people behind the camera and in the editing bays. Even a scene involving video game chat -- yes, some online texting plays a pivotal part -- goes white knuckle.
But it's hard to get over the fact that more wasn't done for Jack. It's absolutely insane that a series named after its hero would do so little for the guy to make him likeable or even believable as a human being, but this Jack Ryan is a name only. Even Dwight Schrute would be begging for Jim to show up and give this some life.
Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan premieres its entire first season on Aug. 31 on Amazon Prime Video.