The Jack Ryan franchise is three decades old, but the character remains a pop culture mainstay, as evidenced by the hit Amazon TV series led by John Krasinski. Ryan, of course, was created by writer Tom Clancy who wrote a series of books tracking the exploits of the CIA analyst who consistently found himself coming face to face with danger. Those exploits were mined for five feature films in total, with three separate actors offering up their take on the Jack Ryan character.
Ryan isn’t a superhero, nor is he some chiseled assassin. He is, for the most part, a fit, smart, regular guy who uses his intellect to help navigate some of the U.S.’s most dangerous situations. It’s kind of a miracle that Ryan has remained popular all this time, given the exponentially increasing scope of studio films. And while not all of the Jack Ryan movies are great, there’s something compelling about each and every one.
So below, I’ve ranked each and every Jack Ryan movie from worst to best, discussing the highlights and downfalls of each.
5.) Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Image via Paramount Pictures
The 2014 reboot Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is better than you remember, but it’s still not great. Paramount opted to finally tell Jack Ryan’s origin story and hopefully launch the franchise anew, even though at the time that Shadow Recruit was released, Chris Pine was a full 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. Regardless, while Ryan’s origin story may be compelling to hear about, Shadow Recruit proves that watching it actually play out—even with a modern twist—is a bit of a drag.
The film “begins” three separate times, and while one could argue it’s important to know where Ryan’s been in order to understand his motivations and choices later on in the film, that didn’t seem to hinder any of the other actors. The film does start to pick up once Ryan arrives in Russia and is suddenly accosted, but it also turns into something that feels very unlike Jack Ryan.
Indeed, Shadow Recruit devolves into a Bourne-esque thriller as it goes along, showcasing impeccable fighting, jumping, and motorcycle-riding skills held by Ryan. But what makes the character compelling isn’t that he can do everything, it’s precisely that he can’t. Ryan’s smarts and moral fortitude are what sets him apart, not his ability to drown a man twice his size in a bathtub. So while on paper these action sequences may seem compelling, in practice they just seem derivative and off.
Pine does deliver a pretty swell performance here with what he’s given, and Kevin Costner plays the sage mentor quite convincingly—indeed, the plan was for Costner’s Thomas Harper to be spun off into his own franchise, but the lackluster box office of Shadow Recruit scuttled that idea. The women, sadly, are mostly non-entities in these Jack Ryan movies, but Keira Knightley delivers what is at the very least the most substantial portrayal of Dr. Cathy Muller in these movies thus far. Director and co-star Kenneth Branagh knows how to shoot action capably, but the Bourne ripoffs are a bit much and his villainous Viktor Cherevin is more curious than actually threatening.
A lot of Shadow Recruit just feels paint-by-numbers. This franchise had the chance to stand out amongst the glut of CG-driven blockbusters showcasing superheroics, but instead the story and characters just aren’t up to snuff. What we’re left with is a Jack Ryan movie that doesn’t feel like a Jack Ryan movie, but also isn’t near as good as the Bourne or Mission: Impossible films. A missed opportunity to be sure.
RELATED: Why ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ Is Worth Another Look
4.) Patriot Games
Image via Paramount Pictures
Following the immense success of 1990’s The Hunt for Red October (it grossed over $200 million against a $35 million budget), Paramount was eager to adapt another Tom Clancy novel for the big screen. So much so that they wanted the film ASAP, but either due to scheduling conflicts or Paramount owing Harrison Ford a favor (depending on who you ask), Alec Baldwin didn’t reprise his role as Jack Ryan. Instead, Paramount went with Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford, and the result is by far the most boring of the Jack Ryan movies.
Yes, Patriot Games is actually worse than you remember. At this time Ford was coming off interesting, character-driven roles in films like Working Girl and Regarding Henry. For Patriot Games, Ford played the family man, with a story that finds Jack Ryan, his wife, and his daughter injured in a terrorist attack while vacationing in London. The bad guys in Patriot Games are a splinter cell of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, with Sean Bean — in one of his earliest roles — turning in a solid performance as a terrorist with a personal grudge against Ryan.
But the story plays out in fits and starts, and while the film is only two hours long, it feels interminable. You keep waiting for it to kick into another gear and for the story to really get going, but it never does. When the film eventually becomes an action-thriller in its third act, it’s so full of impossible contrivances that it’s hard to take much of anything seriously.
Ford’s take on Ryan in this film is fine, but it lacks the spark of excitement or energy that made Baldwin’s portrayal such a joy. On top of everything else, director Philip Noyce drowns the film in a dreary London fog, making it a bore to look at as well.
3.) The Sum of All Fears
Image via Paramount Pictures
The second recasting of the Jack Ryan franchise came in 2002 with The Sum of All Fears. Paramount had actually been trying to get this film made since the release of 1994’s Clear and Present Danger, but in 2000 both Ford and Noyce dropped out over script issues. Eventually the studio decided to cast a younger Jack Ryan and turn this into a semi-origin tale set during Ryan’s earlier days. They turned to Ben Affleck to fill the role, who at the time was one of the hottest young actors around.
Phil Alden Robinson of Field of Dreams fame stepped into the director’s chair, and while this movie has been largely forgotten, it’s really not bad—in fact, it’s actually pretty bold. The film’s villains are neo-Nazis, but Sum of All Fears raises the stakes considerably by telling a story about a nuclear attack. Not only that, but (spoiler alert) the attack is successful — a nuclear bomb is dropped on Baltimore, and the film’s entire third act takes place in the fallout. This adds an air of uncertainty to the rest of the proceedings, and Robinson shifts the visual aesthetic considerably to showcase the United States in the wake of a nuclear attack.
Affleck’s Jack Ryan is pretty charming. His performance is a bit more Baldwin than Ford, in a good way, and the story finds Ryan being forced into taking a hands-on approach while also navigating the dangerous roads of politics. We can see the beginnings of what he’ll be dealing with down the road, and how these interactions will help shape him into the Jack Ryan of the later books. In almost every way, Sum of All Fears is a better origin story than Shadow Recruit.
The Sum of All Fears is also paced really well. Looking back, you can see how something like Patriot Games or even Clear and Present Danger could be easily adapted into a miniseries given the breadth of material covered. But Sum of All Fears has the clearest and most streamlined plot in the franchise since The Hunt for Red October. It all adds up to a pretty enjoyable watch that’s also the most intense of the Jack Ryan films thus far.
2.) Clear and Present Danger
Image via Paramount Pictures
While Patriot Games left something to be desired, Harrison Ford and director Philip Noyce’s second go-around, Clear and Present Danger, was a bona fide success. This movie gets all the best aspects of a Jack Ryan movie right: Intellect over brawn, the geo-political intrigue, and Ryan’s unfailing moral fiber. At 141 minutes this is the longest Jack Ryan movie by quite a bit, and while it does feel a tad overstuffed, the scope is impressive.
The story follows the aftermath of the brutal murder of a man who was close to the President of the United States, who in turn orders secret and illegal retribution against the Colombian drug cartels. Ryan, who is forced to take over as Acting Director of the CIA when Jim Greer (James Earl Jones) falls ill, is kept in the dark, and spends the film playing catchup while Willem Dafoe’s John Clark directs a wet team doing some very bad things in Colombia.
There’s backstabbing, twists, and emotional stakes galore in this thing, and through it all Ford presents Ryan as a genuinely good man trying to rectify the mistakes of men lesser than he. That’s an admirable arc, especially given how high up the backdoor dealings go, and Noyce threads Ryan’s story with the Colombia-set sequences really well. The whole thing flows rather nicely, and comes to an incredibly satisfying conclusion. And yet, as good as Clear and Present Danger is, the Jack Ryan franchise peaked before it even began…
1.) The Hunt for Red October
The Hunt for Red October is not only the best Jack Ryan movie, it’s one of the best submarine movies ever made. This inaugural Tom Clancy adaptation played on Cold War fears (still fresh in the minds of those in 1990) with a tremendous twist: Can Jack Ryan convince the U.S. military that a Russian commander gone rogue, carrying a nuclear weapon, is trying to secretly defect to the U.S.?
The Hunt for Red October was the third home run in a row for director John McTiernan, following 1988’s Die Hard and 1987’s Predator. By now he was a master of the action film, but Red October forced McTiernan to maintain the tension and pacing of those other films while reducing the scale and size to extremely tight quarters. The result is a film that feels at once intimate and epic, carrying with it the same bombast of John McClane scaling a tower in Die Hard, only this time it’s Alec Baldwin traversing a claustrophobic submarine.
And yes, Alec Baldwin is still the best Jack Ryan. He plays the character with a twinkle of joy in his eye—you feel like Jack Ryan genuinely finds delight in figuring out puzzles and using his intellect, in contrast to Harrison Ford’s far-too-somber portrayal in Patriot Games. Baldwin is having fun, and by extension so is the audience. And then there’s Sean Connery’s towering yet likable Ramius, a notorious Russian commanding officer who carries with him a tremendous amount of respect and admiration.
Red October is pieced together like a Swiss watch—there’s not a single missed beat or false turn, and McTiernan even accounts for the missing Russian accents with one of the most genius visual devices in cinematic history. This is pure, unfiltered commercial filmmaking with a cast that came ready to play, and while future Jack Ryan films would dig a bit deeper and go a bit wider in scope, Red October remains the best of the bunch all these years later.
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About The Author
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Adam Chitwood is the Managing Editor for Collider. He’s been working for Collider for over a decade, and in addition to managing content also runs point on crafts interviews, awards coverage, and co-hosts The Collider Podcast with Matt Goldberg (which has been running since 2012). He’s the creator and author of Collider’s “How the MCU Was Made” series and has interviewed Bill Hader about every single episode of Barry. He lives in Tulsa, OK and likes pasta, 90s thrillers, and spending like 95% of his time with his dog Luna.
From Adam Chitwood