When Tom Clancy introduced the world to Jack Ryan in his 1984 novel, The Hunt for Red October, he surely had no idea that the character would still be at the forefront of American pop culture three-plus decades later. Clancy passed away in 2013, but Jack Ryan’s spy-thriller adventures still hit bookstores at the rate of about two a year as other authors take the mantle of the series. (Line of Sight was a New York Times best seller when it debuted in June, and Oath of Office drops later this year.) With Amazon’s premiere of the simply named Jack Ryan this Friday — starring John Krasinski as the titular CIA analyst and co-created by Lost’s Carlton Cuse — it seems the character is as popular as ever, joining genre icons like Jason Bourne and Ethan Hunt on the Mount Rushmore of American spy heroes. Over the years, the shoes of Jack Ryan have been filled by five gentlemen, each with a different and distinct style. Here’s what each actor brought to the role, and how Jack Ryan has changed with every one of them.
The Diplomat (The Hunt for Red October)
Long before he was Jack Donaghy or Donald Trump, Alec Baldwin was the first actor to portray Jack Ryan in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October. With perfectly coiffed hair and fitted suits, Baldwin brings smooth style to the character, though his Ryan is far from the heroic lifesaver of future books and movies. He wasn’t even really the protagonist of Hunt for Red October — that’d be Sean Connery’s defecting Soviet submarine captain Marko Ramius. When Connery isn’t stealing focus, though, Baldwin cements several of the traits that would carry through every iteration of Jack Ryan, primarily the fact that he’s often the smartest man in the room and the only one who knows the truth about what’s really going on. (In this case, Ryan discerns that the Soviet nuclear sub Red October is not a threat, and that Ramius only wants to defect, not start World War III.) Baldwin’s Ryan is very low on action chops, more of a negotiator than a brawling hero. His ability to persuade his superiors that they’ll need to trust him to save the world would become a recurring trait of Jack Ryan stories, even if a few of the actors who would take on the role were less convincing as diplomatic geniuses.
The Elder Statesman (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger)
With the massive success of The Hunt For Red October — it was the sixth-highest-grossing film of 1990, and it scored an Oscar for Best Editing — a sequel was inevitable. But Baldwin jumped submarine from the burgeoning franchise — choosing instead to star in a revival of Streetcar Named Desire with Jessica Lange on Broadway — which left Harrison Ford to pick up the mantle of Clancy’s most famous character. The man also known as Indiana Jones and Han Solo brings a gravity to the role that no other actor would come close to capturing, and he does so before he even says a word. It’s not just that he’s older than the other Jack Ryans, but that he was Hollywood’s elder statesman of action by the time he took the part. His Ryan is also notably a husband and father — much of Patriot Games is about him protecting his family — and he’s way more confident than the other versions of the character. Jack Ryan has often been presented as an ignored rookie — in fact, the next three versions are all tied together by this aspect — but Ford’s Ryan is an obvious leader, someone whom people want to follow.
The Action Hero (The Sum of All Fears)
The first major reboot of Jack Ryan came eight years after Clear and Present Danger, reimagining the character as a bumbling rookie who must save the world from nuclear war. Alas, Ben Affleck looks totally lost as Jack Ryan — call it a hunch, but co-star Liev Schreiber would have been a far more inspired choice — and it certainly didn’t help that this film came out nine months after the 9/11 attacks, given the fact that its centerpiece is a nuclear bomb exploding at a football game in Baltimore. Bad taste aside, Affleck’s Ryan is something of a failed mystery: He often looks lost, but as the movie races towards its climax, he jumps into hero mode in time to save the president and the world. There are elements of Sum of All Fears that work — the great supporting cast also includes James Cromwell, Morgan Freeman, Colm Feore, and Schreiber — but Affleck’s Ryan could also be called “the Inconsistent One” because he never really strikes a solid tone. This Jack Ryan was clearly intended to be seen as a physical hero — the man who would protect America in a post-9/11 world — but that doesn’t really work for Affleck’s performance, not to mention the character’s previous background as a CIA analyst who uses his brain more than his brawn. No one has ever said “Jack Ryan, CIA agent” less believably.
The Rookie (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit)
Chris Pine rebooted the character yet again in 2014’s Kenneth Branagh film, which, for the first time in the series, worked from an original screenplay that wasn’t based on a Clancy book. Everyone loves an origin story, right? Pine’s Ryan may not be notably younger than Affleck’s, but he definitely feels more green: The character is introduced as a Marine vet who monitors Wall Street trades for the CIA, but he’s thrust into a life-and-death game of geopolitical espionage after flagging a suspicious Russian transaction. Of course, a few of the typical Ryan traits are here — especially the character’s brilliance and ability to see what others cannot — but this is more about Ryan finding a love interest (Keira Knightley) and defeating a foe (Branagh himself) than anything on a larger scale. It’s also paced shockingly slow, as Branagh seems to be more interested in making a John le Carré movie than a Tom Clancy one. But still, Pine isn’t bad. His take on the character is almost instinctual — he plays Ryan as someone who can quickly commit to a choice in tricky situations — and the movie presents him as an almost impossibly upstanding hero. (He’s the kind of guy who saves two Marine comrades from a helicopter crash in Afghanistan, even though he has a broken back.) It was easy enough to believe that Pine’s Jack Ryan could become Ford’s version of the character, but Shadow Recruit bombed so badly that we’ll never find out what Pine would have done with a sequel.
The Swiss Army Knife (Jack Ryan)
John Krasinski’s version contains a bit of all of the Jack Ryans we’ve seen before. It makes sense that Krasinski would have more room to develop character traits than his predecessors in the franchise, given that he has a much longer running time to work with, but it’s interesting to see how the Amazon series very purposefully pulled from the cinematic history of Jack Ryan to do so. The show brings back two crucial characters. Wendell Pierce plays Ryan’s CIA mentor James Greer (a role held by James Earl Jones in the first three films), and Abbie Cornish plays Cathy Muller, a longstanding character in the Ryan canon previously played by Gates McFadden (The Hunt for Red October), Anne Archer (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger), Bridget Moynahan (The Sum of All Fears), and Keira Knightley (Shadow Recruit).
At first, Krasinski’s Ryan has that desk-jockey feel of Baldwin’s Red October version, but don’t mistake this show for just another political thriller: The premiere episode ends with Ryan fighting for his life in an extended action sequence that recalls both Affleck’s and Pine’s performances. It may be surprising to those who still see him as Jim Halpert, but it makes sense that Krasinski would be the man to bring together all the Jack Ryans. We’ve seen him behind a desk on The Office, he brought intensity and emotion to A Quiet Place, and he’s kicked ass in 13 Hours. He’s believable as both the smartest man in the room and as someone who can hold his own in a fight. Nearly three decades after first hitting Hollywood, Jack Ryan finally has a little bit of everything.