world on fire

watching tom clancy’s jack ryan on amazon

You know Jason Bourne, John Wick, John McClane, and Ethan Hunt. Now, to the universe of square-jawed, untouchable American heroes whose skills in combat and approachable handsomeness allow them to leapfrog rooms of baddies in a single bound, add Jack Ryan, as played by John Krasinski in the new Amazon series Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, which dropped eight episodes August 31st. Jack’s a CIA analyst, a supposed desk jockey, who gets drawn into an international manhunt when he discovers the identity of a Lebanese-French terrorist mastermind named Mousa Bin Suleiman (Ali Suliman), referred to ad infinitum as “the next bin Laden,” “the new bin Laden,” and even just, simply, “he’s bin Laden.” Ooh, boogie boogie. But Jack is up to the task. After all, the character’s not only an ex-Marine and (weirdly) a stockbroker, but a veteran of 21 novels, five films, and three video games. With that kind of resume, what could go wrong?

Well, that depends on whether you think the world needs another dour Middle Eastern shoot-em-up, another Homeland, Fauda, The Honorable Woman, or Tyrant, to which my instinctive answer is “no.” It doesn’t help that Krasinski’s humor is smothered by creators Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland (both of Lost), who aren’t sure whether this Jack Ryan is a jock, a dreamboat, or a savant, and consequently decide to make him a complete blank. Though there are moments when Krasinski’s towering dignity as an actor shines through, the series’ ever-widening net of characters and situations largely just drives home the point that Jack Ryan himself is the least interesting one of them.

Anyone looking for an adventure series with a sense of humor in the style of the Jack Ryan films will be sorely disappointed. The appeal of that character, when done right, was that he was fully unprepared for the field. In the first film, The Hunt for Red October (1990), Alec Baldwin’s version, faced with a mutinous submarine crew, gulped, “I don’t react well to bullets.”  Right from the pilot, Krasinski’s Jack, trapped in a room with an armed-to-the-teeth Suleiman and his brother, bests the baddies with his bare hands and a well-deployed grenade. In later episodes, he complains about his back hurting, but that doesn’t stop him from chasing terrorists down the street or carrying French policemen out of burning buildings. All in a day’s work. Not that Suleiman is anything to sneeze at. Hell, he runs an international terror finance ring, escapes from a heavily guarded US base, and at one point, thanks to some fascinating editing, manages to make love to his wife without ever removing his drawstring pants. Terrorism gets more devious every day.

Hero, check, villain, double check. There’s also a dutiful love interest, Cathy Mueller, an epidemiologist, who, as played by Abbie Cornish, spends most of the series waiting around pleasantly for something to do. And don’t forget the alternately fatherly and explosively angry boss, James Greer (Wendell Pierce), a shoot-first CIA honcho who’s also—what’s this!—a Muslim. Every time his prayer beads appear on screen, they are presented in arrangements of shadow and light that make them out to be a major reveal, even though we’ve already seen them fifteen times. The ensemble is filled out with secondary protagonists and antagonists—at work and abroad—many of whose storylines verge on the bizarre. (John Magaro plays a drone pilot who at one point falls ass-backwards into a sadomasochistic semi-threesome with a couple who call themselves Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski. Sure, why not.) The best of these minor players is Nora Guerch, who has a blink-and-you-miss-it role in episode two as a Suleiman draftee who accidentally deploys her suicide vest when shot by a SWAT officer. The look of genuine terror on her face when she shouts “Please!” in the moment before the bullet flies beats the rest of the episodes combined for pathos.

Jack Ryan has lots of bright ideas about what a globe-trotting action series ought to be, but not a lot of success in applying those ideas. In a genre rife with casual Islamophobia, Cuse and Roland try and fail to portray religious extremism intelligently. In an oversaturated media landscape of duds that look like duds, Amazon’s money keeps the explosions at least looking explosive, but they rarely feel that way. What the series lacks is a compelling reason to exist. It feels visually and narratively lost, a ship in search of a port, despite evident effort by high-profile directors like Morten Tyldum (who directed the pilot as well as 2014’s moribund The Imitation Game). It doesn’t lack action or ambition— it just happens to be deeply boring.