Rated & Ranked: The Jack Ryan Franchise

*Last Updated 7/17/2023  

I've never read a single one of the Tom Clancy novels that the Jack Ryan franchise is based on. I can't tell you anything about just how faithful the films are. I'm sure there are other fan websites out there that can give you a much more informed and nuanced view on that aspect. What I can offer is my unique opinion as a film fan and in particular, as an action film fan. My first encounter with the franchise was my awareness of 1990's The Hunt for Red October which seemed to have an outsized impact on pop culture when I was a young kid. I saw those images of Sean Connery everywhere! As a young teenager I became familiar with Tom Clancy through the video game adaptations of his work. Among my generation the name Tom Clancy has become mostly associated with military video games - pulling off special operations against terrorism in an immersive digital world.

As I have reviewed each of the films for this project, the strengths and weaknesses of the franchise are pretty clear. On one hand, I think it can be successfully argued that the Jack Ryan franchise is the most consistently good political thriller/action film series Hollywood has to offer. One might respond that there really isn't any other competition in the area (can you name a second franchise in this genre?), but I think that shows just how difficult a genre it is and how unique the Jack Ryan series is. On the other hand, there's an inherent tension in each of the Jack Ryan films between being a grounded nuts and bolts politics/spy film that glories in explaining complex political topics and also an action star franchise (Jack Ryan!) that has a leading hero who punches, kicks, and shoots things to win the day. For my money, to the extent the series learned into the nuts and bolts it distinguishes itself as one of the premiere political thrillers for adults and to the extent it leans into the "hero" stuff it becomes just another action film.

The following rankings cover the five major Tom Clancy film adaptations that feature the character of Jack Ryan. I think there are other film spinoffs and novels of his that have been adapted but don't feature Ryan. I will also not include any television series, especially the Amazon series with John Krasinski. Sorry, I just prefer to stick to films. Of the five films, four would be considered "reboots" - meaning that while the series has had some staying power, no one particular vision of Jack Ryan has really stuck for longer than two films. Let's examine how I would rate and rank those five films.


5. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
Grade: C+
Commentary: The 2014 Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a jack of all trades / master of none reboot of the famous Tom Clancy intelligence officer Jack Ryan. Chris Pine is a more than decent choice for the character and he brings a youthful athleticism to the role that Harrison Ford’s more desk bound agent never had, but it also takes Ryan much farther into the "action star" end of the spectrum. While Ford and Baldwin's Jack Ryan mentioned his marine background, this film depicts it and relies on it. That's fine with me if they want to emphasize that direction, but this reboot doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. On one hand, the world-building first act shows us that Ryan is a former elite soldier, but he’s also wicked smart, and incredibly charming (he’s a super soldier, student, and sex machine within the first 30 minutes!). Sticking to his roots, the CIA enlist Ryan as an undercover agent working intelligence at Wall Street, which is interesting, but not quite action star kind of stuff. The movie picks up a bit when he arrives in Moscow to check out some suspicious Russian accounts and meet with the film’s big Russian villain played by Kenneth Branagh. Ryan is escorted to a hotel room by a courtesy driver who then tries to assassinate him and the film turns into a kind of Jason Bourne action film with a decent but not standout quick edited shootout/fight (the best action scene of the film.) We never get another scene like this the rest of the film. The second act drags in Moscow with Ryan’s girlfriend, played by Keira Knightley, showing up and getting involved. One wonders if she would only do the movie if the character was given more to do or if the role was widened to grab a bigger audience. Thankfully there is a pretty tense data theft sequence, but it’s played more for suspense than action. Eventually the film hits the third act where Branagh’s plans are revealed and the film feels like it has to speed through some kind of big ending but it is stuck on fast forward. In a pretty silly sequence, Ryan on a plane flight back from Moscow pretty much just deduces all of the details of Branagh’s long in the tooth terror plot down to every step from just a couple of details. Seriously, if this was video of the writers room talking the story out loud it wouldn't have looked much different. In just a few minutes time we are in downtown Manhattan and Ryan is chasing the new bad guy on a motorbike, fighting him underground, and then disposing of the bomb in a rushed and hasty action scene with little impact. You can tell the writers wanted elements of Jason Bourne and Ethan Hunt molded into some kind of 21st sophisticated CIA Sherlock Holmes, but in trying to make Jack Ryan a bit of everything, they really turned him into a nothing. Valiant effort, obviously influenced by action trends, but very little impact overall. Worst of the franchise.

4. Patriot Games (1992)
Grade: B-
Commentary: 1992's Patriot Games is the hotly anticipated follow-up to the smashing success of 1990's The Hunt for Red October. Alec Baldwin has been removed as Jack Ryan; apparently they didn't like how much he was asking for and decided for that much money they could get Harrison Ford (someone they wanted originally anyways). This entry begins with Jack Ryan the CIA extraordinary CIA analyst and turns the focus from The Hunt for Red October’s cold war story to a plot involving Irish extremists trying to take out the British royal family. In particular, they are trying to kill a Lord Holmes. After a guest military speaking gig in London (Jack's no longer with the CIA for some reason), Jack Ryan just so happens to witness an attempted car bombing on the royal family and becomes involved to the point where he stops the assassination. Head of the assassination Sean Miller, played by Sean Bean, witnesses his brother die at the hands of Ryan and vows to get revenge. Miller eventually escapes custody and the rest of the film involves Miller seeking his revenge and Ryan getting back into the CIA to stop him. This is one of those more old fashioned action films where most of the action is played largely for suspense and only erupts in violence for punctuated moments. The “action” here consists largely in pouring over CIA reports, analyzing satellite footage, pressuring IRA leaders, and the odd sting operation back in Britain. For my tastes, I like that kind of stuff. Plenty of action franchises pass that up for more showy stuff. While not exactly true to real CIA operations, I like that it at least “feels” much closer to real life than any of the special operations/Bourne “shoot first” style films we get today. Unfortunately, this slow burn political thriller does transition into a more traditional action ending that I’m sure was a crowd pleaser in its day, but I kind of feel like it betrays just how much the film tried to be a more grounded and serious take on a CIA story. The final home shootout is okay, but the mano e mano boat race thing is just plain silly. Oh well, at least we get the first two acts which are engaging enough, filmed in enough real life locations, and sophisticated enough with its slow burn suspense that it plays like a more adult minded film despite the fantastical, but well-made, climax.

3. The Sum of All Fears (2002)
Grade: B-
Commentary: The Jack Ryan franchise, for whatever reasons, could never get a third entry with Harrison Ford and director Philip Noyce done after 1994's Clear and Present Danger; but I suppose if one squints enough they could almost imagine 1997's Air Force One as an unofficial entry. In 2002, the third reboot of the franchise with Ben Affleck (man they tried hard to make him a traditional action star) as Jack Ryan, Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams) directing, and a return of the Russians as the center of political attention. When the Russian President drops dead and a relative unknown, Nemerov played by Ciarin Hinds, the CIA analyst who knows him best - Jack Ryan - is called up by the CIA director William Cabot played by Morgan Freeman. We learn that the new Russian President has trouble behind the scenes controlling his military, but can't share this news without looking weak and comprising his position. Behind the scenes, a Neo-Nazi extremist group has acquired a nuclear bomb and along with other underhanded movements, look to spark a nuclear war between the US and Russia. In a surprising turn for a political thriller (especially not even one year after 9/11) the bomb actually does explode in Baltimore almost killing the President. Will Ryan be able to collect the right information, expose the extremist group, and get it to the President of the US before all-out nuclear war happens? 
The premise and build-up for this entry, as for most in the franchise, is fantastic. The rollout of this hypothetical nuclear standoff is handled convincingly with each of the actors, US and Russian, maneuvering and acting in plausible ways. There's a lot of great small and memorable roles here: Liev Schreiber's CIA agent Woods, Morgan Freeman's CIA director Cabot, Hind's Russian President, and James Cromwell's U.S. President all fit perfectly here. The real problem is that Jack Ryan is poorly written and Ben Affleck horribly miscast. Ultimately, the film doesn't seem to know what to do with Ryan as events are largely out of his hands, worked on by better agents like Schreiber's Woods, or pieced together by his analyst pals. There are a couple laughable moments where they have Affleck yell and scream at people and even get in one fight, but it all comes off as rather impotent. Additionally, they want Affleck to be stubborn in a noble way, but he just comes off as arrogant, whiny, and ignorant. The character feels extremely light weight by the end of the film and unfortunately it really tarnishes an otherwise very strong political thriller. Affleck can be very good in the right roles but I'm glad they decided not to continue making these films with him in the titular role.

2. The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Grade: B
Commentary: The Hunt for Red October is the first Tom Clancy "Jack Ryan" film adaptation and probably the most iconic and best remembered in the franchise - even if Jack Ryan takes a bit of a back seat in star power and charisma to Sean Connery's enigmatic Russian sub commander Marko Ramius (It would take another six years in the film The Rock for Connery to get another role as memorable as this one). This cold war thriller takes place in 1984 and hinges on two elements that could threaten the tense peace: a new Russian submarine (the titular Red October) with a silent engine that threatens destabilizing first strike capabilities and the Russian commander Marko Ramius who wants to defect and hand the submarine over to the Americans. Will the Red October make it to the Americans before the Russian fleet can stop them? Will the Americans understand and welcome the defecting Captain or will hothead military brass take out the Red October in fear its the tip of the Russian spear? Can you guess who the expert on commander Marko Ramius is? That's right - this topic so happens to be CIA analyst Jack Ryan, played here by Alec Baldwin, and he's called in by CIA director Admiral Greer (played by James Earl Jones in the first three Ryan movies) to brief the National Security Advisor. Baldwin makes a decent Jack Ryan here, coming off as smart and insightful (though a bit too trusting) without suffering the "lightweight" problem Ben Affleck had. 
The screenwriters do a good job here of translating all of the technical jargon (one of my favorite parts of the franchise) and military bureaucracy layered throughout Clancy's novel to keep it more like  a tense blockbuster film and not a fancy documentary. The film is blessed with two action icons behind the camera. The quirky but genius John McTiernan is on directing duties - McTiernan was on quite a hot streak with films like Predator and Die Hard being made right before this one. Behind the camera as the cinematographer is Jan de Bont who would go on to direct Speed just four years later. With those two sure hands, it's no surprise at just how definitive the look, sound, and feel of this film would define not only the "Jack Ryan" franchise but nearly all submarine films to follow. One of the great pleasures of films like this are the little roles going to the spectrum of military men and politicians that fill out the story. Scott Glenn (combined with his FBI role in Silence of the Lambs a year later he had a nice one-two punch), Courtney B. Vance, and Fred Thompson all stand out here. There's a lot to really like about this film. Unfortunately, all of these great creatives and actors can't solve the franchise's biggest issue: an out of sync third act. First, everything goes so well and smoothly for Connery and Baldwin, that the story largely plays out without genuine obstacle. Second, I just don't enjoy the major obstacle they do throw in to give everything a bigger action climax. The Hollywood style submarine battle at the end with the skeleton half-Russian half-American crew outdueling a fully manned Russian sub WHILE Baldwin and Connery find themselves in a shootout with a saboteur comes off as a bit silly and belonging in a different film. I hate when resolutions like that leave a sour taste in a my mouth and handicap a film from a higher score. Regardless of my feelings towards the resolution, most people likely feel the Jack Ryan franchise peaked with its first entry. Although it's close, I think one film does outshine it.

1. Clear and Present Danger (1994)
Grade: B+
Commentary: Clear and Present Danger has my vote for the best overall film in the Jack Ryan franchise. I think it has the best overall story, the best action set piece of the franchise, and my personal favorite Jack Ryan performance. Picking up not long after Patriot Games, the franchise has turned its attention from defecting Russian submarine captains and a more personal Irish extremist revenge story to the a new threat: the growing power of drug cartels. This adaptation of Tom Clancy's novel uses America's fight against the Columbian drug cartel as a really informative and engaging primer on the complexities of national intelligence work and politics. Most of the film does a remarkably great job of slowly unfolding the complexities of how drug enforcement takes place, national intelligence work differs from undercover secret operations, congressional oversight attempts to reign in the CIA, and all of the politics that get caught up between everyone involved in these various layers. Keeping a balance between that many players is no easy task, yet director Philip Noyce and the screenwriters have taken Clancy’s dense novel and made it's very difficult and complex subject accessible and engaging. I was locked in as the story kept revealing more and more layers that while exaggerated for the screen, I knew had plenty of roots in real world operations and tradecraft. Heck, there’s even a healthy subtext throughout the film of how the kinds of obstacles and political difficulties in the drug war are similar to some of the same obstacles and political difficulties were had in the runup to the Vietnam War . 
One of the reasons I think the story works so well is due to how well Harrison Ford wears the role of Jack Ryan. Ford's older Ryan, who is now fully back in the CIA shows a depth of understanding and knowledge like every other Ryan, but carries with him a gravitas and moral backbone that differentiates him from other portrayals. It's believable when Ford's Ryan takes on the role of acting CIA director, makes field trips to Columbia, and stands up to key players including the President of the United States. There's an incredible sequence in Columbia with a drug cartel using rocket propelled grenades and automatic weapons on the rooftops to attack a caravan carrying the FBI director that is the single best action set piece of the entire franchise. Ryan is portrayed as vulnerable in the scene (he's not James Bourne/John Wick), but wise enough to handle himself and get out of the situation and it really works largely due to Harrison Ford's performance. There's another sequence in the movie when Ford is trying to outwit the deputy director of the CIA and there computer standoff and ultimate face-off of words is a tense sequence that none of the other Ryan's could pull off. I love Henry Czerny in this standoff, especially how he delivers the line, "You don't have one of these, do you Jack?" Harrison's Ryan is also completely believable family man. His moments with his family and wife bring much more levity to the films than anything the other Ryan's were able to pull off. 
Unfortunately, this film suffers the franchise's central problem as well. Once Ford’s Ryan makes his way down to Columbia in the third act and decides to take matters into his own hands to become a much more traditional "hero" in a traditional movie shootout – the whole thing really falters me. Let Arnold and Sylvester do their thing and give us more sequences of Ryan outsmarting, outwitting, or even out-computering his opponents. Aside from this poor decision, much like in The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games,  I do appreciate the political ending we get with Ryan learning Washington politics but not being changed by them. Overall, this is easily the most sophisticated and layered of the Jack Ryan films and had they found a better way to bring the action to a close, it could have been a real contender for one of the best political thrillers ever made. If I had to share one entry of the franchise with someone else, I'd share this one.