In the early 1980s, Tom Clancy was working for his family’s insurance company when he had an idea for a novel about a rogue submarine commander. “More than anything else, I’m a technology freak,” he once said. “And the best stuff is in the military.” In his downtime, he wrote The Hunt for Red October, which would launch his blockbuster career.
Soon, Hollywood came calling, turning his action-thrillers into event movies. Clancy, who died in 2013 at the age of 66, was a self-styled red-blooded American — he loved Reagan — so it’s no wonder his plots became excellent supports for pro-U.S. tentpoles in which rock-solid movie stars like Harrison Ford keep us safe from foreign threats.
Clancy’s books made for perfect Cold War fodder, which may partly explain why movies based on his work can’t help but feel anachronistic post-9/11. (Ironically, the biggest Clancy hit in years was the small-screen Jack Ryan, which transplanted the hero into our War on Terror era.) With Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse about to arrive on Amazon Prime, we think it’s a good time to look back through the highlights of the author’s film oeuvre. Not surprisingly, we discovered this franchise’s heyday happened decades ago. In the 1990s, though, Jack Ryan was bigger than James Bond.
6. Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse (2021)
Amazon had success bringing Clancy’s most famous hero, Jack Ryan, into the 21st century in its series starring John Krasinski, so why not try the same with the author’s other most notable character? Michael B. Jordan plays John Kelly (spoiler for Clancy fans: That won’t be the name he ends the movie with), a fearless Navy SEAL who is nearly killed during a nighttime assassination attempt that leaves his pregnant wife dead. His journey to discover who was behind the operation will send him to Russia, but Without Remorse fails to offer much that’s new to the well-trod world of guns-blazing political thrillers. As you’d expect from a Clancy actioner, the film has a gung-ho militaristic spirit — sure, the story has some shady government operatives, but the U.S. armed forces are undeniably the good guys. What’s shocking about Without Remorse, though, is how it dulls Jordan’s star wattage. The live-wire spark he usually brings to his work is nowhere in evidence here. It’s understandable why A-list actors would want to attach themselves to a franchise, but why did Jordan have to pick one that’s so generic?
5. The Sum of All Fears (2002)
Much was made at the time of its release about The Sum of All Fears (which begins with a nuclear bomb blowing up most of Baltimore) coming out too soon after the events of 9/11, even though the film changed the villains in Clancy’s novel from Arab terrorists to Eastern Bloc neo-Nazis. (The movie actually finished filming in June 2001.) Today, The Sum of All Fears is mostly just a generic, watered-down “thriller,” one that Ben Affleck, playing a younger version of Ryan, can’t quite fill out. He’s earnest and “patriotic,” but this was still the Pearl Harbor version of Affleck: an empty suit who is very clearly not Harrison Ford or Alec Baldwin. All that said, the movie was a huge hit, and Affleck was set up to play Ryan again. He decided to do Gigli instead.
Oh, and that terrorist-attack scene maybe was a little too soon after 9/11.
4. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
For what it’s worth, Chris Pine is a perfectly acceptable Ryan — and would have been more than an adequate anchor for this franchise had this movie not been too dull and uninspired to spark one. Shadow Recruit isn’t based on a Clancy novel, and you can sort of tell: It feels like an amalgam of several Clancy-esque and Clancy-adjacent thrillers without anything in particular to say on its own. Kenneth Branagh tries to give it some muscular direction but makes the critical mistake of casting himself as the Russian heavy, who’s like a worse workshop version of his already over-the-top villain in Tenet. We’re glad Pine ended up having better things to do with his time.
3. Patriot Games (1992)
The big controversy about Patriot Games when it came out was that Alec Baldwin had been pushed out of the Ryan role for the more bankable, reliable Harrison Ford, and whether or not that’s true, it is undeniable that when you close your eyes and think of Jack Ryan, Ford is the person whose face comes to mind. (You can see this even in other actors’ portrayals of Ryan: They’re all going after that “all-American”-ism that Ford pulls off so effortlessly.) This is the worse of the two Ford-as-Ryan movies, and it’s no wonder Clancy publicly renounced the film before it was released. Now it plays as a replacement-level Harrison Ford ’90s movie, in the middle of a bunch of better (The Fugitive, Air Force One) and worse (The Devil’s Own, Six Days Seven Nights) Ford movies. Still: Something about having Ford as your lead always makes you feel as though you’ll get your money’s worth, and as silly as this movie often is, you ultimately do.
2. Clear and Present Danger (1994)
Clancy was back onboard with this Ford sequel, in which Ryan fights so hard for the American way of life that he ends up battling the president of the United States himself. Clear and Present Danger feels like the platonic ideal of a 24 episode, in which Jack Ryan/Jack Bauer is the sole person who can be trusted to do the right thing, even when his entire government is standing against him. This is Ford at his best — determined, resilient, and appropriately outraged by corruption — and he has an appropriate villain in Donald Moffat’s President Bennett with Henry Czerny and Harris Yulin as his minions. (The film also features a very fun performance by Willem Dafoe as the man Jordan plays in Without Remorse.) A great ’90s thriller: taut, fast, a little but not too ridiculous, and suspicious of everybody and everything. The only person you can trust is Ryan, which is why Ford is perfect.
1. The Hunt for Red October (1990)
The last of the great Cold War thrillers, John McTiernan’s impeccable submarine drama has less action than any other Clancy adaptation, yet it’s easily the most riveting of the bunch. Part of that has to do with the cast: Of course, Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery are terrific as, respectively, the ambitious young Ryan and the weathered old captain Marko Ramius, but even the small parts are brought to life by a Murderers’ Row of excellent character actors. (Scott Glenn! James Earl Jones! Sam Neill! Stellan Skarsgård! Tim Curry!) Then there’s the plot, which has a level of craft that studio pictures rarely possess. It’s not simply that the chess match going on between the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Ramius is scintillating; it’s that screenwriters Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart bring enough emotional shading to the central players that we actually care what happens to them. Also, don’t forget that The Hunt for Red October is surprisingly quotable. “One ping only, please.” “I would like to have seen Montana.” “Most things in here don’t react too well to bullets.” “Welcome to the New World, Captain.” People went to Tom Clancy movies for their tech and their military milieu, but this is the only one of the bunch to possess impeccable artistry and soul.