The Jack Ryan Franchise: An Accidental Secret Agent

Jack Ryan has had plenty of iterations.

A character who originated in a series of popular Tom Clancy novels, he’s kept coming back to the movies in a series from Paramount Studios—played by four actors in five pictures released over 24 years,  with Ryan repositioned through shifting political eras with varying degrees of success.

In Hollywood he’s the closest thing to James Bond they’ve come up with, but instead of ruthless, cool, and witty, Ryan’s an agent with an unerring sense of right and wrong, a heart, and often a family to protect, regularly out of his depth and constantly pushed to perform beyond his pay grade.

His first appearance was a throwback to Cold War thrillers. It remains the best Jack Ryan movie to date:

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The Hunt For Red October (1990) Directed by John McTiernan, written by Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart

In theatres March 2, 1990, The Hunt For Red October seemed a little out of step with the year it came out in. The story takes place in 1984, before glasnost and the fall of the wall. Looking back 24 years it’s an undeniable classic, one of the best submarine thrillers ever made.

Ryan (a funny, lean Alec Baldwin) is a CIA analyst. He’s not an active field agent. He writes books about war. One of his subjects is Marko Ramius, a tough-as-nails Soviet submarine captain—Sean Connery, mustering all the considerable gravitas at his disposal, aided by a great hairpiece. Ramius tests all the new Russian subs, and accordingly he’s taking out the brand new Red October on its debut sail. The enormous nuclear vessel has something called a Caterpillar drive, cutting edge tech making the sub undetectable by US sonar systems. This thing could park itself off Long Island a rain hot atomic death on the East Coast before anyone could stop it: It’s a first strike weapon.

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But Ramius has an alternate plan, which is clear when he dispatches the Red October’s political officer. Ramius and his right hand man, Vasili (Sam Neill, in great form), have gathered confederates, the executive of the crew, who intend on defecting to the United States. But in a final FU to Moscow, Ramius has sent a letter to an old friend in the Kremlin, explaining his intent. It isn’t long before the entire Soviet fleet is sailing after him and his very expensive, very powerful submarine, including one Captain Tupolev (Stellan Skarsgaard) in another nuclear sub.

This attracts the attention of the US Navy, of course. Over on their side are a host of terrific characters, including Admiral Greer (James Earl Jones), who brings Ryan into the situation, sub expert Skip Tyler (Jeffrey Jones), Seaman Jonesey (Courtney B. Vance), who has the magic ears for advanced propulsion systems, and Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn), the grizzled sailor in charge of the USS Dallas, an American submarine.

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Baldwin plays Ryan as clever, driven, but most of all, curious. He’s believable as someone who thinks before he acts.

He’s the first to put it together that Ramius might be defecting and he’s the audience’s avatar into this world of enormous machines of war and the strategies around them. But, unlike some of the later Jack Ryan movies, he’s not the only character moving plot. He shares that responsibility with Connery. This is really an ensemble piece, a story of many military men. (Ryan has a young family in this one, but his wife—Gates McFadden, Dr Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation—is only in a single scene.)

This is the kind of movie that establishes its pacing early on and never flags. And while some of the special effects have aged a little poorly, it doesn’t detract from the excitement and suspense. McTiernan, best known for Die Hard, is just as able here at balancing multiple plot elements, injecting humour when necessary, and keeping the thing moving at many knots to the gripping conclusion.

Politically, this is a film where the calmer, reasonable, educated minds on either side are the heroes. In a world where these terrible weapons exist in the hands of both antagonists, The Hunt For Red October tells us we should feel safer when among the warmongers there are those willing to risk their lives to maintain the balance.

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Special kudos to Tim Curry, playing the most anxious and most gullible medical officer in the Russian navy.

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Patriot Games (1992) Directed by Phillip Noyce, written by W. Peter Iliff, Donald E. Stewart, and Steven Zaillian

Made only two years after The Hunt For Red October, Patriot Games feels like a world away in concept and execution. Where the last film was a sharp and slick Cold War thriller, this one is very much in the present of 1992, and feels far more in line with the US foreign policy at the time, post-Gulf War. Ryan is pretty much the American global police in micro.

Harrison Ford, a much more established and mature leading man, takes over the role, which results in a few changes in his character. For one, this is no longer an ensemble—Ryan is front and centre. He’s retired from the CIA, teaching at the Navy school in Annapolis, and has time to go on long summer vacations with his wife, Cathy (Anne Archer), an eye surgeon, and daughter, Sally (Thora Birch). In fact, we first meet them when they’re enjoying room service in a London hotel. Bad luck: they happen upon a terrorist kidnap attempt of a member of the royal family (James Fox) and Ryan, once he secures his own family’s safety, takes matters into his own hands. He shoots and kills two of the terrorists, including the younger brother of another gunman, hothead Sean Miller (Sean Bean).

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Then things pretty much grind to a halt, pacing-wise. The remainder of the first act has Ryan recovering from wounds sustained during his having saved the royal, testifying at Miller’s trial (they must have thrown that thing together pretty damn quick), and then returning home to his own life in the States—all very gradually.

Wouldn’t you know it, Miller escapes during a prison transfer and gets his radical IRA splinter group of buddies (Patrick Bergin and Polly Walker) to help him cook up a little revenge against the Ryan family. As implausible as that is, how much less likely is it that these Irish badasses would hide out in North Africa when they’re not entering and leaving the United States at will? Who’s funding this stupidity, I wondered, and why do the filmmakers feel it necessary to overlay Irish folk music—both contemporary and traditional—into the movie as often as possible, including Clannad’s “Theme From Harry’s Game” in one key scene?

Most of Patriot Games is sluggish and the plotting predictable. Ford, at this point a veteran of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and just about to be The Fugitive, is an old hand at playing the hero. Here he delivers the action required of him, but not much more. There are a few moments of suspense thanks to reliable journeyman director Noyce, but this is pretty shoddy stuff overall.

When Ryan gets drawn back into his work with the CIA by his buddy Admiral Greer (James Earl Jones the single cast holdover from The Hunt For Red October)things improve marginally, but mostly it’s just scenes of Ryan figuring things out with big brains and highly observant skills that seem to be missing in his colleagues.

Interestingly, when the collection of analysts Ryan works with watch satellite footage of a black ops attack on that African desert base, Ryan is clearly uncomfortable that these pencil pushers are calling the shots from the safety of their control room an ocean away. It’s one of the more subtle ways the “values” of the administration are communicated throughout the movie. Boots on the ground are a lot more honourable, one supposes.

The less subtle ways? Well, at one point Ryan is asked by his military school buddy Robby (Samuel L. Jackson) why he saved that royal on the London sidewalk. He said he felt rage, righteous indignation at the evil going on. That was all the right he needed to step in when he saw bad stuff happening on foreign soil. And even though he earned the ire of psychopaths and endangered his family, he was glad to do it.

How do we know it was worthwhile? Because we see later how murderous Miller is, what he’s capable of. He’s a danger to everyone who loves freedom. It’s not only the wonderful British royal family at risk. After Sally Ryan is hurt, even Cathy, a medical professional who has presumably taken the Hippocratic Oath, gives Jack the go ahead to take Miller down. Whatever it takes.

He does eventually in a ridiculous boat-chase conclusion, but before that happens we have to witness the great Richard Harris in a thankless role as an IRA spokesperson who eventually sells out his more politically extreme brethren.

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Clear And Present Danger (1994) Directed by Phillip Noyce, written by Donald E. Stewart, Steven Zallian, and John Milius

Well, for starters, this is a big improvement over the last film. There’s more complexity, a lot more moving parts. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fundamentally flawed and politically dated.

Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford again) has been promoted, stepping in for his buddy Greer (James Earl Jones again), who’s fighting cancer, as Deputy Director at the CIA. But Ryan is out of step with both the machinations of the hill and of his own office.

The President (Donald Moffat) has an old friend who died at the hands of Columbian Drug cartels—the guy was in business with them and got greedy, squirrelling away piles of cash. For some reason, the President gets it in his head to try and get that dirty money back—his National Security Advisor, Cutter (Harris Yulin) tasks his catspaw at the CIA, Ritter (Henry Czerny at his slimiest), to put together a black ops team in Colombia, led by Clark (Willem Dafoe), to take down these drug lords—Escobedo (Miguel Sandoval), and his head of intelligence, Felix Cortez (Joaquim de Almeida).

These are the players and gamesboard, established in the first act, with Cortez moving like a Latin James Bond, flying into DC and romancing Cutter’s assistant, Moira (Ann Magnuson).

The second act is crammed with intrigue, but not a lot of forward motion, showing off production heft—shooting aboard aircraft carriers and at Arlington National Cemetery. I guess we might be impressed by all of that, but after watching three of these movies, I’m starting to get tired of endless gunmetal grey and close-ups of afterburn from the F-15 engines. They’re like the party scenes of underdressed women and burnished chrome in the Fast & Furious movies—gratuitous.

Eventually, when Cortez reaches out to Cutter, appealing to both his common sense and financial acumen, the American soldiers in Colombia wind up getting the short shrift, and Ryan—still catching up with everyone around him—has to clean up the mess.

Ford is, once again, exercising his “unerring” sense of right and wrong all over the place. Ritter calls him a “boy scout,” and seen from the perspective of a post-9/11 world, he absolutely is.

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We’re supposed to sympathize with him when he’s a right-thinking representative of the very corrupt system he works for. His ignorance is the only thing he’s got going for him, and it isn’t much of an excuse. Covert operations against Colombian drug barons seem almost quaint today when the US President is authorizing drone strikes all over the world whenever it suits him.

And, at the end,  Ryan winds up going down to Colombia himself with a CIA chequebook to buy a helicopter and help Clark get what remains of the elite squad of soldiers out of there. It makes for a reasonable action sequence, but it’s too little too late. The Fall of Saigon overtones feel like a strange rewriting of history. I guess I can’t really fault a movie where the poster has the lead actor swaddled in the Stars and Stripes a little rah rah jingoism. And nobody does that particular brand of Americana better  than co-screenwriter Milius.

The whole thing is worth watching for the unexpected hilarity of Anne Archer as Mrs Cathy Ryan. She’s back, but very much in a supporting role, and I don’t think she’s impressed by her demotion. I’ve never seen an actor look so bored. At least, as her daughter (Thora Birch) says, she makes more money than the President… a very weird line to throw in there.

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The Sum of All Fears (2002) Directed by Phil Alden Robinson, written by Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne

The Ryan Reboot. A lot of effort went into this film, and in some ways its head and shoulders above the Noyce pictures, while still not putting it into the class of The Hunt For Red October. This Ryan, Ben Affleck, is a lot closer to Alec Baldwin’s age, but isn’t quite able to deliver the drive or intellect—he’s just a big jock playing at being clever.

But Field of Dreams helmer Robinson makes The Sum of All Fears a reasonably compelling nuclear thriller. It was just released at the wrong time: Less than a year after 9/11, not a lot of people wanted to see a movie where terrorists get ahold of an atomic bomb and destroy Baltimore with it.

That’s the big event in the middle of the movie. Beforehand is a set-up of Jack and his sweetheart, Cathy (Bridget Moynahan, who, like Michelle Monaghan, seems sadly fated to be arm candy to action heroes and rarely much more). They aren’t married yet, and her specialty as a medical professional isn’t specified. She doesn’t even know he’s in the CIA. For a wonderful second there I thought the whole movie was going to be about him going on missions and having to creatively hide his job. But no, his boss, Cabot (Morgan Freeman), lets him off the hook. It’s actually a funny scene: Jack calls from a jet headed to Russia. Cathy thinks he’s full of shit.

There’s just been a change of administration in Russia and the ability of new man on top, Nemerov (Ciaran Hinds, who impressively speaks Russian for the bulk of the film), to hold onto his power is in question. When the book this movie is based on was written back in 1992, that little detail was au courant, but 10 years later the Russians are an odd antagonist. Of course, nowadays would be perfect.

Of course, Ryan knows all about him, though unlike Baldwin’s Ryan, is a lot less convincing when he tries to tell the President (James Cromwell, replacing Donald Moffat but sustaining the tall, long-faced POTUS trend) that Nemerov isn’t a hardliner.

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Meanwhile, an Israeli nuke lost in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 has been dug up in the desert. South African-accented Colm Feore buys it and sells it to German-accented Neo-Nazi Alan Bates, and he smuggles it into the United States. This is a guy who in the great tradition of James Bond villains SPECTRE wants to pit Russia against the US and take control the smoking cinder that’s left. It’s all deliciously mad. And all the politicians and all the spies (including CIA black-ops guy Liev Schreiber ) can’t stop it from happening.

It’s pretty freaking grim, watching Baltimore get flattened. Even in 2014, 13 years after 9/11. But it does lend The Sum Of All Fears a certain urgency. The stakes seem a lot higher than in the last two movies.

The third act of the film features Ryan somehow surviving a helicopter crash and driving all over radioactive Baltimore to figure out where this bomb came from. His success is totally unlikely: Somehow the smarty pants at the Pentagon analyze the radioactive soil at ground zero and figure out that the bomb was American, made in 1968, and sold to the Israelis. Then it’s up to Ryan to let the President know it wasn’t sent by the Russians before he presses The Button. It all gets a little Strangelove-ian, but not in an embarrassing way.

Following The Sum of All Fears the franchise went dormant once again, until recently…

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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) Directed by Kenneth Branagh, written by Adam Cozad and David Koepp

Seeing Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit for a second time, I liked it more than the first time around. Maybe because it was on Netflix and my expectations were diminished. Or maybe after recently seeing the four previous Jack Ryan thrillers I was comparing this newest edition to the others rather than to the escapades of James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Ethan Hunt, all of whom have raised the bar for spy action in the past decade.

This time the Ryan Reboot (Take Three) arrives firmly in our post 9/11 world. We open on Ryan as a student at the London School of Economics in September 2001 watching the events in New York on TV. I guess he feels like he needs to do his bit for the cause, so he becomes a Marine and goes to Afghanistan where he is hurt in a helicopter crash. Recovering at Walter Reed hospital, he meets medical student Cathy (Keira Knightly, whose accent seemed distractingly mid-Atlantic to me this time), who eventually becomes Ryan’s fiance.

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Pine’s Ryan is a bit too much like Affleck, more the square-jawed action hero and less convincing as the analyst, history scholar or student of geopolitical science. But, like the other Ryan movies, he does get mentored by a veteran of the spygame: Tom Harper (Kevin Costner) recruits Ryan into the CIA while he’s still learning to walk again after the helicopter accident.

Years later Ryan has a gig on Wall Street, working at a firm with Colm Feore (back in a Jack Ryan film—less the bomb retailer, more the financial titan), but actually following money trails for Harper. As in The Sum of All Fears, Cathy doesn’t know anything about Ryan’s secret profession.

A wealthy Russian client, Cherevin (Branagh), plans to disrupt American money markets with another terrorist attack. Ryan gets sent to Moscow to suss him out, on orders from both his firm and The Company. Then Cherevin’s thug who picks Ryan up from the airport tries to kill him, which is maybe the most Bond-like moment in this entire series. Especially when, later that day, Ryan still shows up to Cherevin’s office to audit the files.

Then when Cathy appears unexpectedly in Moscow, Ryan has to come clean to her about his real job. I would have thought that any serious relationship where one partner has been lying to the other for years about something as crucial as his career might cause some serious cracks. I mean, she didn’t sign up to live with a guy who carries a gun. In a matter of minutes she goes from being a doctor with a fiance who has a good job in finance, to the spouse of a secret agent whose mentor is telling her she might die that same evening.

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But she’s genuinely up for anything. So off they go to dinner with Cherevin, where Knightly and Branagh have some good, flirty moments together while Pine’s Ryan excuses himself for a few minutes to break into Cherevin’s office and liberate his secret files. These second act shenanigans are followed by a breakneck third: a car chase through Moscow while Ryan (unfortunately) has to save Cathy from Cherevin, and another chase sequence in New York involving a bomb, where things get a lot more generic.

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Pine is fine as Ryan, but having watched all these movies, I still find that no one can quite match what Alec Baldwin brought to the role. Though I’d read there were plans to spin off Kevin Costner’s Harper to his own movie, I’m not sure what’s happening with that since Shadow Recruit wasn’t a huge success.

As for the chance of more Jack Ryan movies, I’m not going to count him out. This boy scout’s a resilient little bugger.

About the author

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Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.

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