On Friday, Amazon unveils a new take on a familiar character. Jack Ryan stars John Krasinski as the legendary CIA analyst invented by Tom Clancy, a bestselling novelist who dreamt up the character as the hero of his 1984 novel The Hunt for Red October. Ryan became the centerpiece of nine Clancy novels, which enraptured readers with their page-turning, potboiler tales of international intrigue and military know-how. (“You learn to write the same way you learn to play golf,” Clancy, who died in 2013 at the age of 66, once said. “You do it, and keep doing it until you get it right. A lot of people think something mystical happens to you, that maybe the muse kisses you on the ear. … What happened to me was pure dumb luck — I’m not the new Hemingway.”)
The first cinematic Jack Ryan hit theaters in 1990 with the big-screen adaptation of The Hunt for Red October. Alec Baldwin played the analyst, resulting in one of the year’s top-grossing films, and since then, four other actors have portrayed Ryan in films or on TV. But which one is your favorite? And what does your preference say about you? We decided to break down every Jack Ryan, laying out the case for each version’s greatness.
There’s a Jack for everyone — but some are far better than others.
Your Favorite Jack Ryan: Alec Baldwin
Movies: The Hunt for Red October (1990)
What’s Unique About This Jack Ryan? The first big-screen Jack was actually a bit of a nerd. Played by Baldwin, a theater and character actor who was starting to develop a film career thanks to a string of late-1980s hits like Beetlejuice and Married to the Mob, Jack was a brainy analyst (and a former Marine) who didn’t come across as the brawny action-hero type. In this way, he was the perfect main character for The Hunt for Red October, which was directed by John McTiernan, who had previously made Die Hard, another film about a regular guy who saves the day.
Jack doesn’t pick up a gun until the very end of Red October, indicative of a thriller that’s more about strategy and tension than shootouts and big explosions. But that only amplifies the suspense when Jack does put himself in harm’s way — he’s a dedicated patriot, but he’s also very mortal, which makes you worry about the guy’s well-being when he’s jumping out of helicopters or staring down a Russian traitor.
What Happened to This Jack Ryan? After The Hunt for Red October became a big hit, Baldwin was expected to play the character in sequels. But, according to legend, Baldwin was attracted to portraying Stanley Kowalski in a Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, and the negotiations with Paramount for follow-up films fell apart. (This, however, wasn’t how McTiernan remembered what went down. In a 1997 interview, the director said, “There was a great deal of scheming that went on to push Alec out of that part. It’s not a pleasant subject, and I will probably offend a lot of people if you get me into it too far.”)
If You Like This Jack Ryan… You have excellent taste. The Hunt for Red October remains the best-reviewed Jack Ryan property. Plus, it may mean you have a crush on Handsome, Fit, Young Alec Baldwin, the most strapping of all Alec Baldwins.
Your Favorite Jack Ryan: Harrison Ford
Movies: Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994)
What’s Unique About This Jack Ryan? The world is filled with dangerous dudes who want to destroy America — we need a Jack Ryan who’s gruff and kicks a lot of ass. That’s when you turn to a guy like Ford: After becoming a superstar thanks to playing Han Solo and Indiana Jones, the actor spent much of the 1990s portraying honorable, no-nonsense guys who looked grumpy while dispensing with bad guys. Alongside The Fugitive and Air Force One, he was Jack Ryan in 1992’s mediocre Patriot Games — where Jack is retired — and 1994’s Clear and Present Danger, where Jack gets promoted to a leadership position, only to discover that he’s being used. This was the era in which Ford was America’s cranky uncle, keeping us safe while offering us a Werther’s Original, and so it’s no surprise that his Jack is more of a cantankerous father figure. He plays the guy like the world’s oldest Boy Scout.
What Happened to This Jack Ryan? Patriot Games was only a modest success, but Clear and Present Danger proved to be the franchise’s biggest hit, demonstrating the power of Ford’s commercial appeal, even if, by all accounts, the production was a total mess, requiring daily rewrites of a script that wasn’t finished and causing Clancy to complain about the changes to his bestseller. Years later, after Clancy’s death, Ford looked back on the two films and his relationship with the author. “It was complicated,” he said in 2013. “He was a great inspiration for me. His work is obviously unique, wonderfully detailed material from which to derive movies. But he was never terribly happy with [director] Phillip Noyce and [producer] Mace Neufeld and me for making the necessary adjustments to turn the books into films so they would be a popular success.”
If You Like This Jack Ryan… You prefer your action heroes grizzly and growly. This Jack is kind of a generic CIA man imbued with Ford’s grit, like James Bond without the style or swagger or women — he just gets the job done, damn it.
Your Favorite Jack Ryan: Ben Affleck
Movies: The Sum of All Fears (2002)
What’s Unique About This Jack Ryan? It’s a reboot of the character. Baldwin’s and Ford’s Jack was meant to be the same person, but Affleck played him as the new guy learning the ropes of spycraft, jettisoning what happened in the previous three films. In The Sum of All Fears, Jack has to stop a nuclear bomb from going off — like in 1977’s Black Sunday, the fateful explosion is set to occur during the Super Bowl — and he needs to use his smarts to save the day. Affleck had won the Oscar for co-writing Good Will Hunting about four years prior, and he’d quickly parlayed that into a string of blockbuster hits, including Armageddon and Pearl Harbor. It made sense that Paramount would want him to play its scrappy underdog Jack Ryan, hoping to find someone who had box-office clout and some dramatic chops.
What Happened to This Jack Ryan? The Sum of All Fears was a solid hit, demonstrating that audiences could buy Affleck as Jack. (“It was scary and I didn’t want to be the guy who ruined a franchise of movies that I really loved growing up,” Affleck said at the time.) The movie’s commercial success was even more impressive considering that The Sum of All Fears came out the year after 9/11, a time when people were understandably sensitive about films with terrorists wielding weapons of mass destruction. Still, Affleck only made one Jack Ryan movie, moving on to Daredevil and the embarrassments of Gigli and Paycheck, which effectively torpedoed his box-office momentum.
If You Like This Jack Ryan… You probably haven’t seen the previous Jack Ryan movies. The Sum of All Fears is perfectly okay, but Affleck doesn’t bring a ton of depth to a character who feels like he’s being put through the motions of a carefully calibrated studio-reboot operation.
Your Favorite Jack Ryan: Chris Pine
Movies: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
What’s Unique About This Jack Ryan? They basically made him up. Whereas the previous Jack films were all based on Clancy’s novels, Shadow Recruit is an original screenplay based on Clancy’s characters. Like with The Sum of All Fears, the movie was an attempt to reboot the franchise, casting Pine as a Bourne/Bond-esque superspy. As a result, Shadow Recruit really feels like a product of the period in which it was made: The action is flashier and leaner, and it has more of a globetrotting feel to it.
This was also the moment when Pine was red-hot from the Star Trek reboots but also earning good reviews for his work alongside Denzel Washington in Unstoppable. Paramount was clearly hoping to catch lightning in a bottle by plugging Pine into the Jack Ryan mold.
What Happened to This Jack Ryan? The movie got mixed reviews and was only a modest success at the box office, indicating that while audiences were generally aware of Jack Ryan, they weren’t necessarily pining (get it?) for more of the character.
If You Like This Jack Ryan… You really like Chris Pine. Hey, no shame in that: I dig him, too. But I’d rather see him do just about anything else.
Your Favorite Jack Ryan: John Krasinski
TV Show: Jack Ryan (2018)
What’s Unique About This Jack Ryan? He’s the star of an Amazon Prime series now. I haven’t watched the series yet, but Jack Ryan looks to give us a Jack who’s part-dweeb, part-action hero, casting Krasinski as a desk-bound analyst who has to go out in the field to stop some foreign baddies. Basically, the show sounds like what would happen if The Office’s Jim became proficient with firearms.
Krasinski has been making this transition over the last few years, starring in Michael Bay’s 2016 military movie 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi and then delivering one of this year’s surprise hits with A Quiet Place. Suddenly, the idea of a super-buff Krasinski doesn’t seem so crazy, although the star believes that his Jack Ryan will be a welcome reprieve from comic-book movies. “There’s something about Jack Ryan that I think is such a great hero for right now,” he said recently. “He doesn’t have a cape, he doesn’t have stuff flying out of his hands, he’s just a guy with his brain and his instincts.” Amazon hopes he also has a built-in audience.
What Happened to This Jack Ryan? He’s not going anywhere: Amazon has already announced that there will be a Season Two.
If You Like This Jack Ryan… You dig his tech-bro, sensitive-guy routine. This Jack really feels like a 21st-century construct, and it might catch on with viewers, especially because Amazon has been doing a heavy promotional push. Tom Clancy may no longer be with us, but his most famous creation is very much alive and well.