The Jack Ryan movie franchise has ran for 28 years and counting. Based (mostly) on the best-selling series of military techno-thrillers by the late Tom Clancy, five films have been made about the heroic CIA analyst, with four different actors portraying Ryan (two of which were failed attempts to reboot the series). Together, the five films total have grossed $923-million worldwide. With Amazon Prime launching Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan as a new TV series starring John Krasinski, the fifth actor to portray the titular hero, let’s look back at the collection of very different Jack Ryan movies.
Regardless of which actor stepped into the role, the overall portrayal of Jack Ryan throughout the films has been mostly consistent. Ryan is a former Marine turned CIA analyst, who is also a history teacher, author, and professor at the United States Naval Academy. His wife Cathy (Muller) Ryan, a surgeon, also figures prominently in most of the films. Because of his geopolitical expertise and his unerring sense of right and wrong, Ryan is regularly drawn into crises that threaten the United States. The films began during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, but as times changed, Ryan’s adventures spanned conflict with the Irish Republican Army, the war on drugs coming from South America, and post-9/11 terrorism.
Watch: Amazon’s Jack Ryan Trailer
The Ryan films, however, are inconsistent in tone and quality, which makes them a challenge to rank. The first three films in the series are the easiest to follow as they more or less function as a continuing narrative. When director John McTiernan and Alec Baldwin left after Red October, Harrison Ford took over as Jack Ryan in Phillip Noyce’s Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger, which fit as the same character Baldwin played. After creative issues stalled the franchise in the late 1990s, the decision was made to reboot the films with a younger Jack Ryan played by Ben Affleck in 2002’s The Sum of All Fears. Despite Sum‘s financial success, the franchise ground to a halt until it was rebooted a second time in 2014, with Chris Pine assuming the role in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. If all of this sounds confusing, that’s because it is.
5. The Sum Of All Fears
The Sum of All Fears was the first post-9/11 Jack Ryan film and deals with a Neo-Nazi terrorist setting off a nuclear weapon in Baltimore, Maryland in order to start a war between Russia and the United States. It was released in the summer of 2002, just months after 9/11, and the subject matter of a nuke detonated on American soil can make the viewer queasy, even watching it years later. In the film, Ryan is the only person to realize that the nuclear bomb wasn’t Russian, but a framing attempt. The CIA analyst then races against time to get this vital information to the President of the United States, played by James Cromwell, before an all-out war is launched and the Neo-Nazi can fulfill his true scheme, to establish a fascist European state.
Despite a stellar cast, including Morgan Freeman as CIA Director William Cabot, Bridget Moynahan as Cathy Muller, Liev Schreiber, Colm Feore, Ciarán Hinds, Phillip Baker Hall, and Bruce McGill, the plot is convoluted and difficult to follow. Tom Clancy was disgruntled with the many changes made to his novel; in the DVD commentary he introduced himself as “the author of the book that [the director] ignored.” At this point in his career, Affleck, who was a controversial pick (just as he would be when Ben was cast as Batman a decade later), simply lacked the gravitas to be convincing as Ryan, even though the character was meant to be younger and brash. Ryan’s love story with Cathy also hit awkward rom-com notes ill-fitting with the deadly serious subject matter of the main plot.
4. Patriot Games
1992’s Patriot Games began the highly successful two-film run of Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan with Phillip Noyce in the director’s chair. Ford was coming off the end of the Indiana Jones trilogy and embraced Jack Ryan as his new franchise. While visiting London with his wife Cathy (Anne Archer) and young daughter Sally (Thora Birch), Ryan prevents an IRA assassination attempt on a member of the British Royal family. In the process, he kills the younger brother of one of the terrorists, Sean Miller (Sean Bean), who vows revenge and follows Ryan and his family back to the United States. For his part, Ryan has retired from the CIA, but after Miller tries to murder his Cathy and Sally, Ryan returns to the Agency to stop Miller and the IRA splinter group he’s part of from forming their own private army.
Tom Clancy’s novel was actually a prequel to The Hunt For Red October, but the film takes place after the events of the first film. Clancy was so unhappy with the changes the screenplay made, he asked to have his name taken off the film. After the cerebral techno-thriller that was Red October, Patriot Games is a more straightforward action film. Taking full advantage of Ford’s status as an action hero, Ryan finds himself constantly involved in bloody fistfights and shootouts. Clancy found the conclusion of the film – a memorable all-out assault on Ryan’s home that ends with a boat chase and violent brawl between Miller and Ryan – particularly “unrealistic”. And he’s not totally wrong. Despite a great cast including James Earl Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Bergin, and Polly Walker, Patriot Games has a muddled political story that never gels with the personal grudge between Sean Miller and Jack Ryan.
Page 2 of 2: The Top 3 Jack Ryan Films
3. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Essentially “Jack Ryan Begins”, 2014’s Shadow Recruit depicted his origin story that was only hinted at in the prior films. The new Jack portrayed by Chris Pine was rebooted as a student at the London School of Economics during 9/11. He joins the Marines out of a sense of patriotism and survives a helicopter crash that places him in traction. His doctor during rehab is his future wife Cathy, played by Keira Knightley, who suspects he’s hiding an affair from him a decade later when they are living together in NYC. In truth, Ryan only poses as a Wall Street broker when he’s actually a CIA analyst recruited by Thomas Harper, played by Kevin Costner. Ryan discovers and foils a Russian plot to cause the United States economy to financially collapse while also preventing a terrorist attack on Wall Street.
Kenneth Branagh both directed and starred as the villainous Viktor Cherevin. The first Jack Ryan film not to be based on a Tom Clancy novel, Shadow Recruit was a conscious effort to turn Jack in a post-Jason Bourne action hero – and it mostly succeeds. The film presents the most breakneck, frenetic action of the franchise. Knightley’s Cathy Muller is also directly plunged into the action alongside Jack; her scenes verbally dueling with Branagh are among the best in the film. Despite Pine’s all-in performance as Ryan, audiences weren’t enamored with the reboot. Shadow Recruit ended up as the lowest-grossing Jack Ryan film and didn’t spawn sequels. However, Ryan’s adventures in Moscow were both glamorous and deadly, the action scenes are top-notch, and Branagh’s Russian villain is one of the best of the franchise.
2. Clear And Present Danger
Harrison Ford and director Phillip Noyce’s second and final Jack Ryan film, Clear And Present Danger finds Ryan promoted to Acting CIA Deputy Director – Intelligence. Uncomfortable when forced to play the politician, Jack navigates a complex web of lies by members of the White House cabinet, who are conducting a covert war with Columbian drug cartels while setting Ryan up as the fall guy. Jack is driven to clear his name and expose the conspirators, up to and including the complicit President of the United States. As in Patriot Games, the film’s still-relevant politics and spycraft are built around several blisteringly violent action scenes where Ryan travels to Columbia, dodges explosions and gunfire, and gets into a fistfight with the villain, Col. Félix Cortez (Joaquim de Almeida), who is described in the film as “a Latin Jack Ryan“.
Once more, Tom Clancy was less than pleased with the changes made to his novel, but the film succeeds despite its issues with pacing and an overreliance on plunging Ford into action scenes. Clear And Present Danger stuffs a great deal of plot into its 141 minute running time, but at its center is Ford at his most resolute; his Ryan is a pure-hearted Boy Scout who knows right from wrong and he memorably tells off the President in the Oval Office. Willem Dafoe portrays John Clark, a CIA operative who was a regular character in Clancy’s novels but it kills off James Earl Jones’ Admiral James Greer, Ryan’s mentor in the CIA. Clear And Present Danger also contains callbacks to Patriot Games and The Hunt For Red October, nicely tying together the first three films to make it all feel like a complete trilogy.
1. The Hunt For Red October
In 1990’s The Hunt For Red October, Alec Baldwin’s Jack Ryan shares center stage with Sean Connery, who plays Captain Marko Ramius, the skipper of the titular Russian nuclear submarine. Ramius steals the Soviet Union’s most advanced sub, which is built with a silent propulsion system that makes it invisible to sonar. As the US braces for a possible nuclear attack, Ryan is recruited by the CIA as a consultant and figures out Ramius’ true motive: he plans to defect and turn the Red October over to America. The film becomes a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game as Ryan attempts to convince the US Navy to aid Ramius before the Russian Navy can sink their defector.
A nail-biting techno-thriller set in 1984 in the waning years of the Cold War, Red October was directed by John McTiernan, who also helmed Predator and Die Hard. Baldwin’s Ryan tends to be overshadowed by Connery’s star-power (despite his amusingly suspect Russian accent), but the two leads make an excellent on-screen duo when their characters finally meet on board Ramius’ sub. The stellar cast includes Sam Neill, Tim Curry, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Courtney B. Vance, and Stellan Skarsgård. (Cathy Ryan only briefly appears at the beginning, played by Gates McFadden from Star Trek: The Next Generation.) The purest cinematic adaptation of a Tom Clancy novel that is very different from its sequels, Red October‘s suspenseful Cold War intrigue still holds up today and it easily ranks as the best of the Jack Ryan films.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan streams on Friday, August 31, 2018 on Amazon Prime.