Regardless of the political and cultural climate, movies and shows about the CIA usually don’t age well, especially when it’s not critical of the organization and focuses on glorifying its agents. The first season of “Jack Ryan” seemed like a change in the right direction because it showed how the titular character had been treated healthwise, both mentally and physically. Even though it wasn’t stated explicitly, the visual storytelling was good enough to illustrate the point about how thankless this job is. The second season kind of continued this trend and was only elevated by John Krasinski’s vulnerable performance. The problems were still there, but they were kind of eclipsed by the cast and the writing around them. In Season 3, the showrunners seem to be very inspired by Roger Moore’s era of James Bond and Daniel Craig’s “Spectre,” where the hero is so infallible, and the villains are so caricaturish that you can’t take anything seriously or fully laugh at it.
The episodes of “Jack Ryan” Season 3 have been directed by Jann Turner, Kevin Dowling, and David Petrarca, with the writing handled by Carlton Cuse, Aditi Brenna Kapil, Amy Berg, Dario Scardapane, Vaun Wilmott, Marc Halse, and Jennifer Kennedy. The story follows Ryan as he stumbles upon a secret plan to restore the Soviet Empire after its downfall in the late ’80s and early ’90s called the Sokol Project. Assuming that it’s a physical piece of information, Ryan assembles a team to extract it and finds himself rescuing a Russian insider seeking asylum because he knows way too much about the aforementioned mission. Like any classic Jack Ryan story, the insider gets killed, and Ryan goes on the run with the Russian forces and even the CIA on his tail. To make things worse, global politics also take an ugly turn when Czech President Alena Kovac (Nina Hoss) attends a diplomatic meeting with Russian Defense Minister Dmitry Popov (Michael Gor), and the latter gets assassinated right in front of her.
The biggest issue with “Jack Ryan” Season 3’s writing is that it turns Jack Ryan into an action figure. Yes, he bleeds a little and gets scratched here and there. But that’s about it. The reason this feels so jarring is that his injury is an integral part of his character. Heck, it’s so integral that it shows up in the opening credits as the x-ray of his spinal cord. How can you simply write it out of his character design? Yes, most modern action-heavy characters like Ethan Hunt or John Wick suffer deadly injuries and get back up. However, even their recovery time has started to increase to match the character’s and the actor’s ages. Not doing the same with Ryan somehow makes him feel less human and, hence, unrelatable. The show’s writing issues extend to its political themes and dialogue writing. Everything around the Sokol Project isn’t substantial enough to invoke tension over the course of 8 episodes. So, after a point, the twists and turns begin to feel unnecessary. And when said twists are revealed via very stiff expository dialogue, the viewing experience becomes a slog.
“Jack Ryan” Season 3 has the most action out of the three seasons. A lot of it is done practically and on location. It has variety in terms of scale and style. The opening ship invasion, the car chase right after it, and a covert operation in Chernobyl are definitely the highlights. But it is lit (cinematographers Richard Rutkowski, Jeffrey Greeley, and Jacques Jouffret), edited (John M. Valerio, Ian Erskine, Zachary Dehm, Tad Dennis, and Tamar Federknopp), and directed very poorly. There’s a distinct lack of tension in the show, in general. When it goes into action mode, though, the tension practically evaporates. The decision to make the heroes (who are essential to the plot) impervious to deadly injuries and portray the villains as incompetent dolts are partly to blame for this. However, the inability to convey the viscerality of what’s happening on the screen is what makes the action so dull. For example, there’s a moment where a couple of soldiers have to make it out of a tunnel before a bomb goes off. Assuming that they won’t make it in time, Ryan drives into the tunnel to pick them up in his Humvee and save them. The eventual explosion, which causes the Humvee to flip, goes off like such a wet fart that it’s bewildering. The setup is okay, and the wreckage is fine, but everything in between is atrocious. And they apply this formula to every action scene, and the results are always bad. Ramin Djawadi does his best to make these scenes engaging. So, you can award some points to him.
I am a fan of John Krasinski, Wendell Pierce, Michael Kelly, James Cosmo, and Betty Gabriel’s work. But I’ve got no clue what has happened to all of them in “Jack Ryan,” Season 3. The writing is faulty, yes. But the actors seem to be in autopilot mode throughout the show’s nearly 8-hour run time. Krasinski comes alive a bit during the action sequences because he has to. Other than that, he seems too stiff. His dialogue delivery is so dry and unconvincing that he doesn’t feel intimidating, smart, or humorous (three characteristics that he was synonymous with in the last two seasons). Pierce and Gabriel are way too cold to be interesting. Kelly gets some fun moments, but they’re not all that memorable. Cosmo gets a lot of screen time, where he’s mostly restricted to giving threats or smoking cigarettes. It’s a waste of his talents. Nina Hoss, Peter Guinness, Alexej Manvelov, Lucy Newman-Williams, Adam Vacula, John Schwab, Guy Adler, Numan Acar, and Adam Fidusiewicz are decent. Hoss and Guinness are quite good, in fact. However, is it that big of a deal to stand out in a show that’s middling as hell? You decide.
In conclusion, “Jack Ryan” Season 3 is practically unwatchable because despite its (unintentional) parallels with current-day Russia, the politics have no depth, the characters are stereotypical, and the action is an explosion of dullness. I think that the series peaked in the first season and is now on a steady slide downhill. Amazon has plans to follow this up with the fourth season and a spin-off series that will have Michael Peña in a prominent role. That means people are watching the series, which is profitable for the streaming platform. Well, in that case, I hope that the showrunners spend more time improving their writing and action. The plot needs to justify its episodic format and not feel like something that can be compressed into a 2-hour-long film. And the action doesn’t need to be non-stop and big. It just needs to have clarity and emotion and reflect the character’s skills. Until that happens, I’m stepping off the bandwagon and wishing everyone who enjoys John Krasinski’s world-saving shenanigans all the best.