Jack Ryan is back, making his first foray into television as "Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan," with John Krasinski following Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine into the role of America's action-packed CIA analyst.
Created from the nuts and bolts of the Clancy canon by Carlton Cuse ("Lost") and Graham Roland ("Fringe"), the series is not the first time we have gone back to the beginning with Jack Ryan. When we meet him here, Ryan is merely a CIA analyst with a PhD in economics — ergo "Dr. Ryan."
He boyishly bicycles to work, with a backpack – can you guess that the driver of the car with which he nearly collides will be his new boss? It's Wendell Pierce as James Greer, an admiral in the books and movies but here demoted (and divorced), a former Karachi station chief knocked back to Washington — after an incident whose details you will have to stick around to learn — to run the terror finance and arms division, where Ryan crunches numbers and monitors the chatter.
Do they get along at first? Will they get along later? Have you watched television before?
Ryan has noticed some anomalous transactions "in and around Aden," a new pattern. He’s heard some chatter, thinks he has a line on a new "high level target," a new Bin Laden with charismatic, newly nonsectarian appeal, and encourages action to nip what might be the next 9/11 in the bud. According to the ancient rules of storytelling, his superiors will not take him seriously and then will have to.
That figure, whom we have already met as a child in 1983 Lebanon dancing to "The Safety Dance" before being bombed out of his home and family, is Sulieman (Ali Suliman). He is handsome in a Hollywood sort of way, well-spoken, loves his kids and wife (Dina Shihabi) and especially his sensitive younger brother Ali (Haaz Sleiman), who draws pictures and loves the smell of the sea.
Some care has been taken to ensure that this is not an exercise in chest-thumping jingoism, and there is a minimum of Death to the Infidel rhetoric. A sympathetic major American character is made a Muslim, a few horrible Westerners are introduced and at least one terrorist is not an Arab, while “the enemy” is given motivation, context and connections. (In the movies it's always personal, even when it's political.)
Indeed, they are on the whole more fully realized than their American counterparts — including canonical possible love interest and clutch heroine Dr. Cathy Mueller (Abbie Cornish) — who spend the series learning to come out of their shells.
In terms of screen time relative to character development, Ryan may be the shallowest figure here, an assemblage of reactions and attitudes more than a person we get to know — or seem to get to know, which is all the same in television.
His early-episodes earnestness is appealing. Krasinski — 38, an alum of TV’s “The Office” and star-writer-director of the horror hit “A Quiet Place,” has the face of a comically naughty child in a 1950s sitcom and is reliably delightful in roles that allow him to be charming or warm.
Here, he is forced to spend much of the middle episodes in a kind of balled-up funk as Ryan stews indignantly over the moral compromises he encounters "in the field."
We are meant, I think, to share his pique — he has a point, and trouble with both sides — as well as to find it tiresome and unhelpful. But it gives all the best moments away to Pierce, who is as easily believable, and believably easy, as an old agency pro as he's been in every other part he's ever played.
Still, the star handles the action well, when it comes — and, oh yes, it comes. We have seen Ryan rowing a scull on the Potamac and have been shown his Batman muscles (and his scars), and we know that he was a Marine in Afghanistan. So when things get physical, it's not incredible that he should acquit himself well. (He is not a superman; he just puts his bad back into it.)
"I think you have everyone fooled," says a French police detective (Marie-Josée Croze) with whom Ryan collaborates. "I think you are a wolf, a wolf that plays at being a sheep."
A secondary, so far separate plot line involves a Las Vegas-based Air Force drone operator (John Magaro), and while it seems to be meant partially as an indictment of modern point-and-click warmaking, it also is genuinely moving in a measured way the high-stakes rest of the show can't quite afford to be. I suppose the season's final two episodes may spin that story out a bit further, but what's there now could be lifted whole out of "Jack Ryan" and make a satisfying short film on its own.
I thought of the late Anthony Bourdain while watching “Jack Ryan” — a different sort of action hero, a diplomat in food and culture, familiar with the places that Ryan goes, a messenger from a hopeful future rather than a 9/11-defined past. If the series’ central conflict suggests a world of Us and Them, Cuse and Roland are at least not blind to the bigger issues that surround it.
"Geography is destiny, my friend, " says a Turkish criminal who is helping Ryan find a missing person. "The world is the kiln, we are the clay."
"Wow, let me write that down," says Ryan, but his sarcasm is misplaced.
‘Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan’
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)