As proven by the hugely successful Amazon TV series starring John Krasinski, the Jack Ryan franchise has been around for almost three decades. Tom Clancy, the author of a series of books about CIA analyst Ryan, developed the character and wrote about his adventures in a series of books. Three different actors took on the role of Jack Ryan as a result of these escapades being used in five feature films.
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In other words, Ryan isn’t a super-hero or a cold-blooded killer. When it comes to the most hazardous circumstances that face the United States of America today, he’s a fit, smart, and normal guy. The fact that Ryan has been so successful for so long is something of a marvel in an era when studio pictures are becoming more and more diverse and complex. Jack Ryan movies aren’t all terrific, but each one has a unique quality that makes it worth watching.
To that end, I’ve ranked every Jack Ryan film in chronological order, from the very worst to the very best, and discussed the high points and low points of each.
5.) Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
There is some improvement in the 2014 relaunch of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Even though Chris Pine was four years older than Ben Affleck was during The Sum of All Fears and two years older than Alec Baldwin was in The Hunt for Red October when Shadow Recruit was released, Paramount decided to finally tell Jack Ryan’s genesis story and possibly launch the franchise anew. Shadow Recruit, on the other hand, illustrates that even with a modern twist, Ryan’s genesis tale is a bit of a drag to see.
Even though one may argue that knowing where Ryan has been in order to understand his decisions and reasons later on in the film is vital, it didn’t appear to have any effect on any of the other actors. There are a few moments where the film begins to pick up, but it also becomes something that is very much out of character for Jack Ryan.
As the story progresses, Shadow Recruit becomes into a Jason Bourne-style thriller, highlighting Ryan’s impressive fighting, jumping, and motorbike riding abilities. It’s not so much that he can do everything that makes him interesting as it is that he can’t. Not Ryan’s ability to drown a man twice his size in a bathtub, but his intellect and moral fortitude. As a result, despite the fact that these action sequences sound exciting on paper, in practice they come off as cliched and uninspired.
Kevin Costner’s Thomas Harper is fairly believable as the sage mentor in this film, and it was originally planned that Costner’s character would be spun off into a separate trilogy, but the disappointing box office performance of Shadow Recruit wrecked that concept. Unfortunately, the female characters in these Jack Ryan films are largely non-existent, although Keira Knightley’s portrayal of Dr. Cathy Muller is the most nuanced to yet. Branagh, the director and star, knows how to shoot action well. But there are too many Bourne ripoffs in this film, and the villain is more inquisitive than dangerous.
In Shadow Recruit, a lot of the gameplay feels like painting by numbers. In the crowded field of superhero films, this franchise had the opportunity to distinguish out, but the story and characters aren’t up to snuff. A Jack Ryan movie that doesn’t feel like a Jack Ryan movie, but isn’t anything near as good as the Bourne or Mission: Impossible flicks. That’s for sure a blown opportunity.
4.) Patriot Games
As a follow-up to 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, Paramount was keen to adapt another Tom Clancy novel for the big screen following the success of that film. Because they needed the movie as soon as possible, Alec Baldwin was unable to reprise his part as Jack Ryan, either because of schedule issues or because Paramount owed Harrison Ford a favor, depending on who you ask. A significantly more boring Jack Ryan film would have been made had Paramount cast Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford.
It is true that Patriot Games is worse than you recall. Ford had just been in films like Working Girl and Regarding Henry, both of which had compelling, character-driven parts. Ford portrayed the family man in Patriot Games, which tells the narrative of a terrorist attack that injures Jack Ryan, his wife, and their daughter while they are vacationing in London. One of Sean Bean’s first appearances in the movie Patriot Games as a Provisional Irish Republican Army terrorist with a particular hatred against Ryan is a superb performance.
However, the plot develops in spurts, making the film’s two-hour running time seem excessive. In spite of the fact that you keep expecting the tale to take off, it never does. It’s impossible to take anything seriously when the picture shifts to an action-thriller in the final act, which is full of ridiculous plot twists.
However, Ford’s portrayal of Ryan in this film does not have the same enthusiasm or intensity as Baldwin’s. To make matters worse, director Philip Noyce drapes the picture in a gloomy London fog, further dulling the proceedings.
3.) The Sum of All Fears
In 2002, The Sum of All Fears was the second recasting of the Jack Ryan franchise. Since the premiere of 1994’s Clear and Present Danger, Paramount has been trying to have this film made, but in 2000, both Ford and Noyce walked out over script concerns. This became a semi-origin story with a younger Jack Ryan in the lead role once the studio opted to cast him. Ben Affleck, then one of Hollywood’s brightest young stars, was chosen to play the part.
Phil Alden Robinson, the director of Field of Dreams, helmed this film, and while it’s been completely overlooked, it’s actually rather good. As a story about an impending nuclear attack, Sum of All Fears elevates its neo-Nazi antagonists to a terrifying new level. A nuclear bomb is dropped on Baltimore and the film’s third act is set in the aftermath of the attack’s success (spoiler alert). This creates a sense of ambiguity, and Robinson modifies the visual style significantly to depict the United States in the aftermath of a nuclear strike.
Jack Ryan, played by Affleck, is endearing. In a good way, Ryan’s performance is reminiscent of Baldwin rather than Ford, and the story sees him taking a hands-on approach while navigating the perilous political landscape. From this point on, we can see the seeds of what he’ll face and how his interactions with others would mold him into the Jack Ryan of the following books. Sum of All Fears has a better origin story than Shadow Recruit in nearly every way.
Also, the pacing in The Sum of All Fears is superb. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see how a miniseries based on Patriot Games or even Clear and Present Danger could easily be created. The plot of Sum of All Fears, on the other hand, is the most concise and straightforward in the series since The Hunt for Red October. All in all, this is one of Jack Ryan’s best movies, and it’s also the most intense.
2.) Clear and Present Danger
While Harrison Ford and filmmaker Philip Noyce’s first effort, Patriot Games, fell short of expectations, their second attempt, Clear and Present Danger, was a resounding success. “This movie has it all right: Intelligence over brute force, geo-political intrigue, and Ryan’s unwavering moral integrity.” Overstuffed but amazing in scope, this is the longest of the Jack Ryan films by a long shot.
Retribution against Colombian drug gangs is ordered in secret and illegally after a guy who was close to the President of the United States was brutally murdered. While Willem Dafoe’s John Clark (Willem Dafoe) supervises a wet squad executing some very bad things in Colombia, Ryan (James Earl Jones) is kept in the dark and spends the film playing catchup.
Even as Ford portrays Ryan as a really nice man seeking to correct the faults of men less than himself, there’s plenty of backstabbing, twists, and emotional stakes to go around in this thing. In light of how high-level the under-the-radar deals are, that’s an admirable plot arc, and Noyce does an excellent job of weaving Ryan’s tale with the Colombian scenes. Overall, it’s a very enjoyable read that ends on a high note. Although Clear and Present Danger is an excellent entry in the Jack Ryan series, the genre has already reached its zenith.
1.) The Hunt for Red October
Jack Ryan fans, rejoice: The Hunt for Red October is the best Jack Ryan film ever filmed, and it also happens to be one of the best submarine films ever made. For those who grew up during the Cold War in the 1980s, this first Tom Clancy adaptation drew on those feelings with an incredible twist: Can Jack Ryan persuade the US military that a Russian commander armed with a nuclear weapon is seeking to defect to the US?
After Die Hard and Predator, director John McTiernan had a string of hits with The Hunt for Red October. Despite the fact that McTiernan had already established himself as a master of the action film genre by this point, the magnitude and size of Red October forced him to hone those skills even further. As a result, the movie has the same bombast as Die Hard’s John McClane mounting a tower, only this time it’s Alec Baldwin navigating a cramped submarine.
The best Jack Ryan remains Alec Baldwin. In contrast to Harrison Ford’s way too grim portrayal of Jack Ryan in Patriot Games, he gives the character a genuine glint in his eye and makes you believe that he enjoys solving riddles and exercising his intelligence. Because Baldwin is having a good time, the audience is, too. There’s also Sean Connery’s imposing yet lovable Ramius, a notorious Russian commanding general who carries a great deal of respect and admiration.
One of the most brilliant visual tricks in cinematic history, McTiernan even manages to make up for the lack of Russian accent in Red October with a brilliant visual trick. While succeeding Jack Ryan pictures would go deeper and widen their scope, Red October remains the greatest of the bunch.