Quick: What’s the first franchise you think of involving a patriotic government staffer who has to beat up bad guys in order to foil international conspiracies, and who has been played by several actors over the course of decades? Bond? James Bond?
Sure, but let’s not forget Jack Ryan, a Central Intelligence Agency analyst who just wants to sit at a desk, and is the centerpiece of several best-selling Tom Clancy military thrillers.
Now Ryan is back and being portrayed by John Krasinski in “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” an Amazon show debuting Aug. 31. The eight–episode series presents the first TV version of the humble analyst turned world-saving hero, following several films in which the character has been rebooted and reimagined.
The first onscreen Ryan was Alec Baldwin, in 1990’s “The Hunt for Red October.” He was followed by Harrison Ford in “Patriot Games” (1992) and “Clear and Present Danger” (1994); Ben Affleck in “The Sum of All Fears” (2002); and Chris Pine in “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (2014).
While most of the films received mixed reviews, the interest in Ryan projects has remained high in Hollywood.
“They appeal to audiences because they appear to be nice guys and somebody who you want to be friends with,” said Mace Neufeld, a producer on every onscreen iteration.
Ryan is also different from the typical action hero. “His brain is his superpower,” said Carlton Cuse, one of the show’s creators with Graham Roland. “That’s what distinguishes him.”
Now it’s Mr. Krasinski’s turn to inhabit the character. And this iteration will be different from past versions, focusing on Ryan at an earlier point in his career than in most of the books or movies.
Developments quickly take the young analyst from his desk at Langley to Yemen, where he participates in interrogations and the occasional firefight as he pursues a terrorist mastermind in the Middle East who may or may not have ties to ISIS.
All of the Ryan projects vary in tone and substance, including this new series. But one thing they share is that each is a product of its era, their bad guys channeling whichever international villains were in the news at the time. In that way Jack Ryan isn’t just the only one who is able to untangle the complex conspiracy at issue — he’s also a mirror reflecting America’s most prominent geopolitical anxieties.
“The Hunt for Red October” played heavily on Cold War tensions. “The Sum of All Fears,” based on a book from 1991 but released a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, involved a bomb going off in a crowded part of Baltimore. The movie led by Mr. Pine had a face-off with the Russian government at a time when, in real life, relations with President Vladimir Putin were increasingly strained.
Here’s a look at how Ryan has evolved over the years.
‘The Hunt for Red October’ (1990)
The Villain: It’s unclear and that’s the point.
Who is Jack Ryan? Mr. Baldwin plays Ryan as a charismatic, upstart C.I.A. analyst in the most cerebral of the movies. Ryan is called into action by Vice Admiral James Greer (James Earl Jones) after a powerful and undetectable Russian nuclear submarine has seemingly gone rogue.
Directed by John McTiernan, the film is remarkably different from the others, its intrigue derived from a high-stakes chess game, rather than a mash-up of action scenes. The submarine is commanded by Marko Ramius, who is actually Lithuanian, not Russian (and is played by the Scottish Sean Connery). Ramius’s intentions are a mystery to both the Americans and the Soviets, as well as to the audience. But the brash Ryan correctly surmises that Ramius is actually defecting, and averts nuclear disaster in the process.
One consistent characteristic throughout the movies: Even though Ryan is simply an analyst who sits at a desk, he can handle himself in the field because, we find out at some strategic point, he’s a former Marine.
‘Patriot Games’ (1992)
The Villain: A violent offshoot of the Irish Republican Army. But mostly Sean Bean.
Who is Jack Ryan? Well, it was supposed to be Mr. Baldwin, or so he thought. He wrote in HuffPost in 2011 that he wasn’t in the second installment because “the studio cut my throat.” According to him, Paramount, the studio behind the film, was simultaneously negotiating with him and Mr. Ford and chose the latter largely because he was a bigger box-office draw.
Mr. Ford’s Ryan was retired from the C.I.A. and teaching at the United States Naval Academy. Ryan’s wife was recast as Anne Archer and given a new name — in “The Hunt for Red October” she was played by Gates McFadden — but his boss stayed the same, with Mr. Jones reprising his role as Greer.
The Ryan films fronted by Mr. Ford are more action-heavy, a deliberate choice, according to Mr. Neufeld. He said that having Ryan be away from the confinement of a submarine allowed for more fast-paced storytelling.
The movie takes off when Ryan happens to find himself on a street in London when Irish terrorists try to assassinate a high-ranking British politician. Ryan foils the attack, led by a terrorist named Sean Miller (Mr. Bean). In the process, Ryan shoots Miller’s brother, leading to a film-long grudge that Miller can’t shake.
Mr. Ford’s Ryan prefers punching to analysis. The story’s central conflict is more about settling a personal grudge than saving America.
‘Clear and Present Danger’ (1994)
The Villain: The U.S. government and Colombian drug cartels.
Who is Jack Ryan? The villains are coming from inside the house. Mr. Ford is back and he’s received a promotion — he becomes deputy director for intelligence after Greer becomes terminally ill — and his reward is to take on his own government.
The plot is set into motion when a close friend of President Bennett (Donald Moffat) is murdered by a drug lord, Ernesto Escobedo (Miguel Sandoval, bearing a strong resemblance to Pablo Escobar). But the real villain isn’t Escobedo. It’s a high-level conspiracy involving his intelligence officer, Felix Cortez (Joaquim de Almeida); the U.S. national security adviser, James Cutter (Harris Yulin); and the deputy director of operations, Robert Ritter (Henry Czerny).
Ryan finds out about the cabal and, after some more firefights, punching and kicking, exposes the scheme, even at great risk to his career.
‘The Sum of All Fears’ (2002)
The Villain: The Russians, maybe. But really, neo-Nazis.
Who is Jack Ryan? Ben Affleck enters the fold as the youngest Ryan yet. This film had the most audacious plot of all of them: A nuclear bomb is detonated inside Baltimore, and everyone thinks it’s the work of the new Russian leader, President Nemerov (Mance Rayder, er, Ciarán Hinds). But not Ryan, who has studied Nemerov at length, and knows deep down he’s not a hard-liner.
This film features an unusually ineffective Ryan, who, again, can’t stop a nuclear bomb from detonating inside Baltimore. But after it goes off, he is able to get cooler heads to prevail and exonerate Russia just as the two countries are on the brink of nuclear war. The real culprits turned out to be neo-Nazis, who want to start a war for some reason — it’s never totally clear.
‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ (2014)
The Villain: The Russians, for real this time.
Who is Jack Ryan? Mr. Pine’s installment is a striking departure from the other films. It came more than a decade after the previous edition and is not based on a specific Clancy novel. It keeps key aspects of the character’s back story while updating the timeline, showing the helicopter crash that forced Ryan out of the Marines — the previous films only mention it — and suggesting he entered the Marines after seeing the Sept. 11 attacks while studying at the London School of Economics.
The Russians, given barely any depth in the film, hatch a plot to prop up the U.S. dollar in an effort to collapse it to crash the economy and then follow up with a terrorist attack. Mr. Pine’s Ryan is an analyst but also a spy, and hides the true nature of his work from his fiancée, played by Keira Knightley. However, she discovers the truth and teams up with him for an operation in Russia. This film also features the couple’s first argument, which Ryan’s C.I.A. handler (Kevin Costner) referees: “This is geopolitics. It’s not couples therapy.”
Like past films, the plot tries to be contemporary. The franchise has its first references to Reddit and Instagram and features several high-tech gadgets. And of course, back in 2014, real-life tensions between the U.S. and Russia were once again dominating headlines. Come to think of it, “Shadow Recruit” would feel timely today, too.