At the height of its cultural popularity, Tom Clancy was a name synonymous with both the box office and the The New York Times List of best sellers. Starting with the 1984 novel The Hunt for Red October and until his death in 2013 (with subsequent novels approved by his estate), Clancy’s penchant for military accuracy helped popularize the technical thriller across the mainstream media. His most popular series, after the career of CIA analyst Jack Ryan, has been the inspiration for six feature films and an Amazon Prime Video ongoing series starring John Krasinsky as the titular hero.
With two reboots and four actors playing Ryan since 1990 (not counting Krasinski), film adaptations of Clancy’s works are an interesting conundrum. At their best, they exemplify the best of the genre trappings of their time, while lesser offerings demonstrate a franchise that should have been a bona fide hit, but always seemed unsure where to set its sights.
6. Without remorse
The 2021 Amazon Studios original film tells the origin story not of Jack Ryan but of John Clark (Michael B. Giordano), arguably the most popular supporting character in Clancy’s Ryanverse and the protagonist of his spin-off novels (as well as the Ubisoft video game series Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six). Although Clark was a significant player in Ryan’s third and fourth films, Clear and present danger and The sum of all fears (played by Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber, respectively), plans to adapt his solo novel of the same name and similar concepts have languished in development hell for nearly two decades. Despite all that time spent waiting, fans wouldn’t be remiss to expect a film with more weight instead of one that goes through the motions expected of a revenge thriller. As such, Without Remorse it’s competent enough but recycles tired tropes, playing with a gritty intensity rather than earning it with busy script work, as Clark searches for answers after Russian agents kill his family and his Navy SEAL team. The most commendable feature of the film is Jordan’s performance, as he is an actor seemingly incapable of not giving his all to a role, but Jordan deserved a script worthy of his caliber.
5. The sum of all fears
The fourth Jack Ryan sequential film also served as a soft reboot of the previous three installments. Ben Affleck takes over from Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin as a much younger and inexperienced Ryan, the setting shifts from the early 1990s to 2002, and the book’s villains are neo-Nazis rather than Palestinian terrorists (a very wise change). Global, The sum of all fears it is similar to a well oiled watch. It has an elegant pace, an efficient and always ticking mystery, fully committed to the semi-apocalyptic concept. As a bonus, it honors (mostly) the determining factor it created The Hunt for Red October an extraordinary narrative: intelligence and diplomacy resolve a potential war, not patriotic bravado or inflicting harm on others. Affleck brings an oblivious yet serious energy to his Ryan, and it really would be hard to go wrong with a cast that includes Morgan Freeman, James Cromwell, and Ciaran Hinds. Some of the nuclear bomb imagery remains arguably strong, however, and with no Jack Ryan name attached, there’s little to distinguish it from early 2000s thrillers of the same type.
4. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
The second reboot attempt, the first entry in the franchise since The sum of all films, and the first screenplay not based on a Clancy novel — all of these facts likely contributed to why a disappointing box office doomed this second reboot. And that’s a shame, in his way. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit may not even bring anything new to the cinematic table, but the director by Kenneth Branagh the skills of a seasoned director fill in those lackluster gaps and elevate Recruit Shadow to something more pleasant than soulless popcorn fare. It’s fun, snappy, and enjoys classic spy thrills and Chris Pino it’s always an interesting advantage. Looking at his eventual wife, Cathy (Keira Knightley), carrying more narrative weight is also a delight, even if it’s ultimately relegated to a kidnapped loved one.
3. Patriot games
Fans may know more about it as the infamous adaptation so unfaithful that Clancy wanted his name removed from the final production. The Patriot games the screenplay certainly takes liberties with its source material, but just as Branagh’s direction helped Recruit Shadow entertainment value, the excellence of the cast eliminates the silliest plot points. Ford’s first outing as Jack Ryan is yet another demonstration of the star’s simple watchability. Released in 1990, Patriot games also has a particularly poisonous Sean Bean foreshadowing his villain era (Golden eye there were still five years to go). Some of the action sequences are excellent too, such as Bean’s Sean Miller chasing Cathy Ryan (Anna Archer) and daughter Sally (Birch Thora) along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in rush hour traffic.
2. Clear and present danger
After Admiral James Greer (James Conte Jones) appoints Ryan Acting Deputy Director of Intelligence, poor Jack just can’t have a quiet day. Instead, he’s left to unravel a complicated plot involving a Colombian drug cartel and top American officials like the president. All in a day’s work, though, right? Despite the need to balance a more complicated storyline with several overlapping stories and multiple new characters, Clear and present danger it’s a snappier, tighter effort than his Patriot games predecessor and funnier to it. Ford remains in his prime as an action hero, and under various creative circumstances, the franchise in its current state could have easily continued for several more installments.
1. The Hunt for Red October
Sometimes, the original strikes gold. From a production point of view, the Die Hard director duo John McTianan and director of photography Jan de Bont creates a beautiful sense of rising and inevitable tension that builds as much on the character as on its setting. The attention to detail in recreating the claustrophobic interiors of submarines, while leaving enough space for cinematic equipment, not to mention the dynamic lighting of those monotonous spaces, is stellar. The appeal of the actors is as good as could be asked for at the time (where else could you get Sean Connery, Sam Neill, James Conte Jones, Scott Glenn, Tim Curry, and Stellan Skarsgard all together) and helps sell the serious vibe sharply. Ryan’s (Alec Baldwin) insightful eye pays off with study and acumen, and fosters hope that there are always honorable people in this world, even if they’re on the other side of the Cold War. At its core, Red October he believes that men of opposing nations are capable of enough empathy to share a love of the peaceful, tranquil simplicity of fishing. And beyond all the extravagant spy shenanigans, car chases, and gunfights of the franchise, dreaming of that peace is painfully human.