In The Sum of All Fears (2002), a young Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck) is ironically called “007” by a high-placed CIA official (Morgan Freeman). That proved to be wishful thinking on the part of the film’s producers, who were hoping that the reboot of the Tom Clancy character, after three earlier movies with two actors as the hero spook, might be the vanguard of a new franchise. Nothing doing, it turned out. For whatever reason, it took 12 more years for Jack Ryan to resurface, this time with another actor (Chris Pine) in the old shoes and, for the first time, in a story not actually based on one of Clancy’s novels.
So it would seem that a re-evaluation of the earlier films is in order. In 1990, a trim, slim 32-year-old Alec Baldwin donned the character of Dr. Jack Ryan (ex-Marine, PhD and CIA analyst) in The Hunt for Red October. Second-billed behind Sean Connery as a defecting Soviet sub commander, Baldwin was quite good in the role, relying more on sly, subtle humor and less on brawny fisticuffs and derring-do than his successors. A more rounded-out character appears — we even see Jack’s wife and young daughter in a brief scene at the beginning of this story, before he’s whisked away to once again save the day.
Unceremoniously dumped by the producers (or so one version of the story goes), Baldwin was replaced in 1992 by 50-year-old Harrison Ford, who was at the top of his action-hero game. Ford had finished the third Indiana Jones movie three years earlier, would score big again in The Fugitive in 1993 and yet again as the two-fisted president four years later in Air Force One. In Patriot Games, and two years later in 1994’s Clear and Present Danger, Jack Ryan handily takes on a variety of villains, including rogue IRA terrorists, ruthless drug cartels and a corrupt White House.
The chronology goes way backward in The Sum of All Fears, with 30-year-old Affleck (looking even younger than his years) teaming up with a CIA mentor (Freeman) to try to prevent (unsuccessfully, it turns out) a nuclear terror attack on U.S. soil. Released a year after 9/11, the movie seems especially prescient today, even though the villains are a group of fascist Russians instead of the Islamic terrorists of Clancy’s novel. Jack Ryan gets engaged to his wife at the end of the movie.
Now it’s 32-year-old Chris Pine’s turn to step into the role, and he does so as effortlessly as he mastered Captain Kirk’s command in the two new Star Trek flicks. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, like its title suggests, gives us more pre-CIA background on Jack before he takes on another rogue Russian, Viktor Cherevin, played by Kenneth Branagh, also the film’s director. With even more action than its predecessors, the new action movie succeeds in updating the character for a whole new generation more attuned to superheroes than counter-intelligence agents. This time, Jack gets engaged all over again, with Keira Knightley stepping in as his wife-to-be.
Five good films in 24 years with four good actors playing the same hero! As to which actor is best in the part and which film is tops, I concede the point to the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain, who advised us in Huckleberry Finn that “you pays your money and you takes your choice.”