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When pretentious people talk about adaptations, the stock phrase ‘going back to the source material’ usually pops up at some point. But what if, to be slightly euphemistic, your source material is ‘a couple of rounds short of a full clip’? How authentic to your source material do you want to be then?
It was a dilemma that faced pretty much everyone who’s adapted Tom Clancy’s books, including the producers of season one of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Amazon’s best show up to that point – all things being relative. Clancy’s books can be exciting but are also mockably bad, jingoistic nonsense at times. So if you want to do a Tom Clancy adaptation, do you ‘go back to the source material’ and do something that’s risible, or do you do something that’s better?
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan was actually decent enough TV. True, it was often pretty stupid and its Clancy-esque view of the world gave us Muslim terrorists able to smuggle not just one but two WMDs into France. But you didn’t feel like you were watching a Trump Tweet come to life and it did at least aim for a certain air of verisimilitude.
Season two, however, seems to have decided to go back to the source material – and be stupider and crasser. After only moderately insulting Muslims, France and the Middle East in season one, this time round, it’s the turn of South America to get told it’s really rubbish and nowhere near as good as the US.
It sees our former buddies – Jack Ryan (John Krasinski) and James Greer (Wendell Pierce) – working on different continents. Greer is in Russia, trying to work out who’s firing missiles from the South Seas. He’d probably stand a better chance if he didn’t keep falling over and nearly dying from a heart condition.
Meanwhile, Ryan is back in the US. He has suspicions that Russia is shipping arms to Venezuela and before you know it, he’s in-country, trying to find proof. And before he knows it, so’s Greer – as their respective missions start to dovetail.
But not everything is so clear cut. Except for the fact Venezuela is shit and corrupt and nowhere near as good as the US – or one All-American guy with a big American gun.
For a while, it looks like season two is going to be sharper and more exciting than season one. We see our Jack lecturing CIA people on how important Venezuela is. He even uses pie charts and graphs. Meanwhile, in a place that really, really looks like Moscow, Greer is doing proper spy things with The Americans‘ Lev Gorn.
Sure, Ryan’s ‘Venezuela’ has a fake corrupt president (Jordi Mollà) up against a lovely, heroic woman of the people (Cristina Umaña), whose husband has been disappeared. But the show’s trying really hard.
It’s probably around the time we arrive in ‘Venezuela’ and it doesn’t even try to hide it’s obviously Colombia that we begin to have our doubts. I mean it’s obviously Colombia. You don’t even have to have watched all of Narcos to realise this – although if you have, you’ll have horrific déjà vu for the rest of the season, since Jack Ryan seems to be deliberately filming in exactly the same locations.
Then we’re wondering where Abbie Cornish (aka the future Mrs Jack Ryan) has got to this season. Sure, Noomi Rapace has a habit of replacing other actresses in sequels (cf Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), but is no one going to even mention her?
It’s not a quick descent into stupid, but you can watch Jack Ryan slowly losing altitude, like a hot air balloon with a puncture, over subsequent episodes. There are frequent spots of cleverness, such as Jack’s expedition to London offering some decent and surprisingly accurate filming and geography or the frequent Spanish- or German-only scenes. The return of John Hoogenakker is also welcome, as is the product placement by the US military of a couple of ships and Black Hawks. And then Anthony Head turns up and clearly decides to have a whale of a time for the money.
But each episode feels just a bit more ‘dumb as a rock’ than the previous one. By the end, when we have (spoiler alert) Jack storming the Presidential Palace to rescue Greer, who’s locked in a cage in the basement, while the president entertains a party , you’ll be feeling stupider but won’t be able to recognise the exact point when the show had started to erode your brain cells.
Was it when a phone bill itemised everything in London as having an 081 prefix? Was it when Jack (spoiler alert) hired The Mummy‘s Arnold Vosloo and you thought that seemed reasonable? Was it the Clancy-esque of idea Flash LiDAR being mounted on a satellite and then being able to see into jungles? Was it when the British police turned up in force, sirens blaring, to a shooting in the middle of nowhere less than a minute after the shooting?
You won’t know. But you will feel stupider.
Despite the obvious fortune granted the production, Jack Ryan peters out, as though it couldn’t quite fund the extra episode needed to finish off its main idea: (spoiler alert) that someone in the US has been helping . Three minutes and it’s done, tagged on to the end. By which point, you’ll have probably forgotten what the point of the season was anyway, since the previous two episodes have largely been ‘tag and release’ plot circles.
Certainly, despite the show trying to be more like the books, you’ll have forgotten why it’s Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. There’s very little that marks the show out as being Clancy-esque, other than its jingoism. There’s Ryan and Greer… but that’s about it and they’re not exactly the bosom pals of the books. No loving explanations of military tech. The action scenes are good, but no better than anything you’ve seen before. There’s no real sense of authenticity, with special forces guys coming up to places all lights blazing and practically shouting “they’re over there”.
It’s just a generic action thriller with good cinematography that happens to have a couple of slightly unassuming leads.
Yet for all that panning I’ve just done, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan remained pretty watchable throughout. As with the first season, everything is competently enough done and adrenaline filled that going from episode to episode is relatively easy and enjoyable.
Like the books, which are the ultimate airport novels, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is there for you to watch, when the thought of getting through a boxset of something intellectually stimulating is just too much.
So will I be back for season three? Quite probably. As I said with season one, this is bubblegum TV and sometimes, bubblegum TV is all you need.
There is one mystery I hope will get solved by then: how is Tom Clancy, who died six years ago, one of the executive producers?