No one has ever accused Tom Clancy’s novels of being subtle. They are action-filled tales where good guys fight bad guys and the good guys usually win. These comfort food stories are effective because they rarely require us to think beyond a white hats versus black hats paradigm. Now that Amazon is a player in creating movies and TV shows, they can take chances on certain projects, but they also know there needs to be bread and butter shows for those who like their heroes to be uncomplicated. That’s why “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” falls mostly into the comfort food zone. John Krasinski plays the role of Jack Ryan, and on the surface, it seems like an odd choice. After all, the Ryan character has been played by a number of heavy-hitter actors like Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck. Krasinski, who is trying come out from under the shadow of the Jim Halpert character he played on “The Office,” has made bold career changes to remake his image. Writing, directing, and co-starring in the film “A Quiet Place,” and now taking the lead role in “Jack Ryan,” it’s clear that these moves are designed to showcase his talents beyond the work he did on “The Office.”
Alas, it doesn’t always work in “Jack Ryan.” Krasinski has been working out a lot, and he gets to show off his body in the series, but even when his character is in a high-level security meeting, there’s more than a hint of expectation that he’s going to look at the camera with that Jim Halpert deadpan. Acting aside, the story arc of “Jack Ryan” is pretty simple: there are some ISIS-like terrorists who are plotting something big in the U.S. and Europe. Ryan, who has been tracking money transfers as a member of the Terror, Finance, and Arms Division of the Counterterrorism Center Washington D.C., makes the connection between the money transfers and the leader of this new terrorist group — who is known as Suleiman. Just what is Suleiman up to? Well, that’s where the story jumps into high gear to discover. The cast includes Wendell Pierce as Ryan’s boss, James Greer. Abbie Cornish as Cathy Mueller, a doctor and Ryan love interest who works with infectious diseases. While 90 percent of “Jack Ryan” stays within a standard action-adventure mold, there are a few wildcards that attempt to freshen up the genre.
While the temptation to portray a terrorist like Suleiman as a one-dimensional character is there, the creators of “Jack Ryan,” Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland, make the decision introduce some gray areas into an otherwise black and white universe. Showing Suleiman’s backstory from a child who liked “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats, to surviving an airstrike that killed his mother and injured his brother, to struggling financial analyst in France whose ethnic background is a barrier to economic and social advancement humanizes the monster he becomes. Also, Suleiman’s wife, Hanin, is a much more complicated figure who flees from her husband after she finds out that he’s up to no good. Credit the performances by Ali Suliman (as Suleiman) and Dina Shihabi (as Hanin) for bringing a needed corrective to otherwise stock characters.
“Jack Ryan” tries to defy expectations (having Jack’s counterterrorism boss being a Muslim is another example), but too often a plays right into them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but considering Amazon is bankrolling this series, one would expect to find more surprises. The action sequences are often nail-biting and tense, the overall story arc does have moments of intrigue, but far too often “Jack Ryan” feels like it’s playing it safe by being predictable. The show is headed for a second season with a whole new “Big Bad” for Ryan and Greer to combat. One can hope that Cuse and Roland will see opportunities to breathe new life into the second season — since the first season felt a little too much like “24” at times.