Jack Ryan review: John Krasinski’s action hero transformation is complete

Tom Clancy's character gets a worthy update thanks to smart and nuanced storytelling from Lost creator Carlton Cuse

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Behold the final stage of the John Krasinski glow up.

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There were signs of the star’s latent dramatic potential in the latter years of the US Office, as his lovable prankster Jim Halpert climbed the corporate ladder, and his floppy hair shaped into a smarter quiff. But few could have predicted that just five years after the show’s finale he would be taking on the role of one of the most iconic action heroes of the past 30 years – and nailing it.

In Amazon’s Jack Ryan, he steps immediately out of the lofty shadow of his predecessors (Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin and, most recently, Chris Pine) giving a more nuanced portrayal of the CIA operative than any of them managed – as a righteous man whose work, which all of a sudden involves field combat, weighs heavily upon him.

To understand the extent of this achievement, try, for a minute, to picture Matthew Perry crashing a military prison in Yemen, wielding a pistol like a pro and throwing down with a bunch of Lebanese terrorists. Doesn’t quite float, does it? The closest we’ve seen to such a transformation is former Parks and Recreation star Chris Pratt’s emergence as a non-traditional leading man in Guardians of The Galaxy and Jurassic World (there are shades of Andy Dwyer in both Star-Lord and Owen Grady). Krasinski’s hero, remarkably, is straight-faced.

The show, however, is not a one-man effort, and Krasinski’s excellence is at least in part down to the work of the show’s writers led by Lost’s Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland. The duo may have plucked their leading man from the pages of Tom Clancy’s series of novels, but the story – which features a refreshingly layered portrayal of the USA’s counter-terrorist efforts in the middle east – is original.

As the season opens, Ryan is an up-and-coming analyst stuck in his desk job following a stint in the military. One glimpse at Krasinski’s new muscles rippling out of his shirt , however, will tell you that he won’t have much time to flirt with the receptionist this time around. (He does have some time for flirting – with his former boss’ daughter played by Abbie Cornish – but this is cut short by the call of duty.)

When he notices a pattern of irregularities in the financial activities of a suspicious individual in Yemen, Ryan reckons he’s locked on to a terrorist in the midst of conspiring “the next 9/11”. And, after some initial bristling and grousing, his rogue and unpopular boss James Greer (played by The Wire’s Wendell Pierce), enlists him to go and suss the threat out for himself.

Luckily, there isn’t much time wasted here, and the two are thrust into a massive battle before the season opener is out, giving us our first real glimpse of the former sitcom star in action.

Krasinski’s charm and acting chops were never in question, but his ability to convincingly throw a punch will have worried even his keenest followers. Thankfully, he hurls his newfound braun around with great confidence, laying the smack down like a pro (perhaps he got some tips from The Rock?).

It’s during this epic showdown that we first meet our antagonists, Mousa Bin Suleiman and Ali Bin Suleiman, a pair of Lebanese Muslims who were raised in France and became radicalised to avenge the death of their family at the hands of the Americans.

Cuse and Roland are conscious of the dangers in fictionalising the war on terror, particularly in our fragile times. Their portrayal of the villains here, while far from perfect, mostly avoids negative stereotyping. At the very least, the Suleimans are fleshed-out, flawed individuals, rather than the caricatures of radical Islamists that we’ve seen before in shows like 24.

Much of the second and third episodes of the season are devoted to Mousa Bin’s family back in Lebanon, as his wife Hanin (played excellently by the ascendant Saudi Arabian actress Dina Shihabi) reckons with her husband’s activities. 

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John Krasinski and Wendell Pierce in Jack Ryan

They also do their best not to go the way of many of these All-American action hero portraits, which tend to gloss over the USA’s own culpability in the radicalisation of certain corners of the Middle East.  A brilliant side-plot in episode three, which has the feel of a vignette until it ultimately ties into Ryan’s pursuit in its dying moments, takes an unflinching look at the emotional turmoil a drone pilot undergoes in the hours after pulling the trigger, and an episode in Paris sees a French detective ask Ryan how he can stomach working for his government despite all of the damage they’ve done over the years. He acknowledges this, responding that by being on the inside he may be able to help bring about change. 

The same detective also provides a rather cold analysis of French xenophobia when Ryan airs his inability to understand how a college educated Muslim could be seduced by extremism: “we have an entire generation of Muslims living here who have no jobs, no prospects,” she says. “Do you think a piece of paper changes the way the world sees you? In America you can still be an African-American, you can be a Mexican-American… In France, there are no hyphenates. You are either French, or you’re not”.

While these moments tend to fade into the background in the opening episodes in favour of romping and stomping, the fact that the writers are interested in geopolitical tensions of the day is encouraging, and suggests that there is brains behind the braun.

All in all, it’s a hugely encouraging start to what may be Amazon’s best mainstream drama to date.

Amazon’s Jack Ryan is released on 31 August 2018

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