If Tom Clancy did not exist, it would have been necessary for Hollywood to invent him. “[Clancy] never aspired to literature,” wrote The Los Angeles Times’ David Ulin in 2013. “His novels were about commerce from the get-go … [he wrote] bestsellers that were made into movies.”
The bestsellers that Clancy wrote in the 1980s and ’90s were machine-tooled contraptions loaded with high-end technology. Reading them was a bit like flipping through a Sharper Image catalog or a quarterly profit report from Lockheed Martin. The technocrat was also a technophobe: “It was one thing to use computers as a tool, [and] quite another to let them do your thinking for you,” muses one character in 1984’s The Hunt For Red October, about a runaway Soviet sub with sonar-defying upgrades and first-strike nuclear capability.
The Hunt for Red October dramatized the potential end of the world as we know it, and captured an anxious zeitgeist and sought to soothe it as well, imagining a brave new world where a Soviet commander and an American intelligence analyst might sail off together into the sunset. The mid-1980s were sold by Washington’s political architects as “Morning in America,” and Clancy’s novels—which he produced like clockwork after The Hunt for Red October—provided Ronald Reagan with his preferred bedside reading. The Gipper was famously Clancy’s biggest celebrity fan, and, according to insider myth, devoured a copy of 1986’s Red Storm Rising (another bestseller with a title drenched in bloody, commie crimson) before a summit with Mikhail Gorbachev.
As the first movie star president, Reagan loved taking his cues from pop culture (he also enjoyed Rambo: First Blood Pt. II and said after a screening that he now knew what to do in a hostage situation). Still, the legend of the president phoning up Margaret Thatcher to recommend Red Storm Rising—a White House–hotline version of a book of the month club—evokes and ultimately transcends Kubrickian satire. Nothing in Dr. Strangelove could compete with a B-movie actor learning diplomacy from books written by an autodidactic Midwestern insurance adjuster who was kept out of the Army Reserve in his youth by a case of myopia.
What Reagan responded to in Clancy’s books was their delirious yet levelheaded blend of reactionary paranoia, anguished patriotism, and quasi-documentary realism. Like his fellow bestselling author Michael Crichton, Clancy developed a prose style that integrated data as a form of drama: The novels are replete with datelines, time stamps, file names, and barely veiled allusions to real-world politics. Clancy, a stickler for detail who once claimed that “the difference between fiction and reality” was “fiction has to make sense,” eschewed the sexy escapism of Ian Fleming for a studied drabness closer to John Le Carré—except with a more rightward tilt than his British predecessor. Clancy’s heroes weren’t haggard pragmatists, but elite, clear-eyed operatives dealing with the onset of glasnost—cold warriors during the thaw. His leading man was the two-fisted analyst Jack Ryan, whose rise through the ranks from Agency bookworm to commander-in-chief provided a baseline for the books’ densely interconnected story.
In novel after novel, Ryan, just your average handsome, relatable genius-everyman, sorted through convoluted conspiracies in search of the kind of moral certitude that justifies breaking the chain of command. Clancy wrote political thrillers with a dim view of politics and politicians, who he thought were either inept fumblers or status-climbing liars. Extrajudicial violence and vigilante justice had their place in Clancy’s superficially by-the-book universe. In 1993’s Without Remorse—which reportedly sold at the time for “between $13 and $14 million”—a Vietnam vet sublimates his rage at being exploited and forgotten by his government into a righteous campaign of revenge.
In the 1990s, with Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger providing solid box-office returns, Without Remorse was in line for a movie adaptation, but the project ended up in turnaround for several decades. Amazon’s new movie version of Without Remorse feels very much like a movie that’s been through multiple revisions; the script is set in the present and swaps out the hero’s Vietnam service for Black Ops work in Syria (and just keeps changing the story from there). The substitutions suggest that while Clancy’s name is still viable a decade after his death—as evidenced by Amazon’s ongoing Jack Ryan series—his themes and worldview are past their expiry date. 2014’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit felt more like a knockoff than a reboot, and in the past 10 years, video games like Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six have proved more conducive to dramatizing Clancy’s story lines than films, immersing his target audience—boomer dads, gearheads, and armchair snipers—in gameplay that replicates the books’ mix of of intensity and intractability.
What follows is a ranking of the feature films made out of Clancy’s novels to date, including Without Remorse.
The Hunt for Red October (1990)
“Cold and hard” says the Russian submarine captain gazing out above decks at the frigid fjords of Murmansk. It’s an assessment that goes double for Sean Connery’s performance in The Hunt for Red October. Casting the former 007 as the eminence gris of the Soviet fleet was a masterstroke, while the apparent disappointment of having the white-hot Kevin Costner pass on the role of Jack Ryan ended up improving John McTiernan’s movie considerably. In lieu of Costner’s laconic, all-American heroism, Alec Baldwin serves as a nervy, decidedly non-superhuman leading man, and permits Connery’s gravitas to carry the show. Coming off of Predator and Die Hard, McTiernan was Hollywood’s reigning action auteur—a master of narrative propulsion in tight spaces—but The Hunt for Red October isn’t kinetic. Instead, it’s slow, stately, and patient. Compared to its early ’90s blockbuster competition, its construction is downright classical. It’s a film of conversations, and McTiernan’s steady, rhythmic crosscutting between the corridors of Ramius’s high-tech vessel (populated by a murderer’s row of British and European character actors), and the American intelligence experts trying to follow his trail (or, in Ryan’s case, read his mind) has the sweaty intensity of a ’60s classic like Fail-Safe. McTiernan’s most celebrated directorial touch—eliminating subtitles for the Soviets via a close-up of Peter Firth saying the word “Armageddon,” which means the same thing in English and Russian—ties into the story’s theme of mutually assured destruction. By 1990, Clancy’s parable had been rendered passé by the political dissolution of the USSR, but the movie still gets to have it both ways, venerating Connery’s defector as a noble progressive operating ahead of the globalist curve while making the other Russians and their culture seem as exotic and alien as Klingons (the movie would actually make a pretty good allegorical double bill with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which is at heart a submarine thriller as well).
Clear and Present Danger (1994)
Originally, Clear and Present Danger was the follow-up to The Hunt for Red October, with a script by wing nut emeritus John Milius (Mr. Red Dawn himself, and a kindred spirit for Clancy). It ended up being pushed back in favor of Patriot Games, a movie Clancy disliked enough to try to have his name taken off of it. He didn’t love Clear and Present Danger either, but the film feels of a piece with its source material. It’s dry, violent, and absorbing. Harrison Ford’s weary acting as Jack Ryan is outshined by Willem Dafoe in wily, cowboy-mercenary mode as Clancy’s other recurring hero, John Clark, a CIA hotshot leading a guerilla unit against a cartel kingpin clearly based on Pablo Escobar. The script’s inference (carried over from the novel) that America’s tactics in the war on drugs have been compromised by profiteers (including a few of the President’s Men) gives the film a vague sheen of Clinton-era cynicism. As ever, Clancy’s depiction of deep state rituals cuts both ways, as both fetishistic spectacle and critique. Talkier and more static than its predecessor Patriot Games, but with a little bit of slam-bang grafted on where it counts, Clear and Present Danger is orchestrated by director Phillip Noyce with the kind of middleweight professionalism that’s disappeared on the other side of the CGI revolution. Viewed now, the film’s adroit physical and vehicular choreography and stunt work feel like one the last gasps of analog-era action filmmaking.
Patriot Games (1992)
Alec Baldwin claimed he was edged out of the Jack Ryan role by unscrupulous producers on Patriot Games. The accounts of behind-the-scenes casting intrigue are at least as compelling as a story line that finds Ryan thwarting an assassination attempt against a member of the royal family by members of an IRA splinter faction. (In the book, the royals were identified by name, marking the book as a Diana-era fantasy; the movie fabricates some faceless aristocrats in their place). Clancy supposedly considered Patriot Games his best novel, and complained that the movie deviated too much from the source material (although the author’s unqualified contempt for the IRA, which borders on outright hatred, shines through anyway). There’s a pretty slick chase off the top, but geopolitically speaking, Patriot Games lacks The Hunt for Red October’s apocalyptic stakes (an American hero plying his trade in the U.K. is more businesslike than mythic) and the plunge into Jack Ryan’s personal life doesn’t go very deep. The problem is that Ford is bored and joyless; he’d be much more entertaining (and self-parodic) a few years later in Air Force One, a movie that plays like a steroidal, comic book parody of Clancy’s shtick, right down to the heavily accented Russian bad guys.
Without Remorse (2021)
“We’re going to play by my rules now” promises Michael B. Jordan’s John Kelly early on in Without Remorse, but Stefano Sollima’s movie cribs liberally from the millennial action-movie playbook: It’s as dark, drab, and grim as the director’s Sicario sequel, and similarly convinced of its own seriousness. The setup of having a heroic Navy SEAL watch helplessly while his pregnant wife gets killed by foreign assassins is vintage Clancy, and the sadism of the early scenes—convincingly sold by Jordan in wounded-avenger mode—writes John a moral blank check that the rest of the movie is all too happy to cash. Well … “happy” is probably overstating it. From its po-faced title on down, Without Remorse is a sulky, hard-edged affair, and if it’s difficult at times to tell the difference between pulpy principle and the obligation to renovate valuable intellectual property, it’s in keeping with the murkiness of the story line, which opportunistically riffs on Russiagate while doubling down on Clancy’s simultaneous fascination and contempt for the deep state.
There’s some decent staging here, especially a plane crash that segues into an underwater suspense sequence shot in submerged, suffocating long takes, but Without Remorse never quite achieves the urgency or excitement of a great action movie; it’s more like an accomplished slog.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
It took 20 years, but Kevin Costner—who had been McTiernan’s first choice to star in The Hunt for Red October—finally made his way into the Ryanverse in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Looking every bit the laid-back veteran movie star, Costner plays a covert ops guru (the latest in an unending stream of them) who invites Chris Pine’s wet-behind-the-ears Afghanistan vet to be the CIA’s inside man on Wall Street. At first, the posting involves riding the subway, wearing nice suits, and telling little white lies to his fiancée (Keira Knightley, practicing her Yankee diction in a truly thankless role), but when Ryan gets wind of a complicated scheme to cripple the global economy, he’s dispatched to frigid Moscow and pitted against a cirrhosis-stricken Russian businessman played by Kenneth Branagh (who also directed the movie, and acting-wise was warming up for Tenet). The best bit here—Ryan’s shell-shocked response to his own first kill as an operative—is taken straight from Casino Royale. While the rest of the action is pretty tepid, Pine’s slightly in-over-his-head quality is nicely reminiscent of Baldwin’s take on the character.
The Sum of All Fears (2002)
“I’m the author of the book that [the director] ignored,” carps Clancy on the DVD commentary for The Sum of All Fears, once again frustrated by a filmmaker’s inability to authentically convey his vision on-screen. In this case, liberal Hollywood’s mistake was swapping out Armageddon-minded Arab nationalists for neo-Nazis (a politically correct move that clearly rankled the writer). As one of the first big studio blockbusters released after 9/11, Phil Alden Robinson’s film was a bit of a canary in a coal mine for how politically themed thrillers would fare going forward. The film’s central set piece of Baltimore getting destroyed by a smuggled nuke had genuinely explosive shock value in an anxious zeitgeist, and went further than any scene in any other Clancy movie toward disaster-movie spectacle.
But the gamble of casting Gigli-era Ben Affleck as the smartest guy in the room was a losing bet. While less miserable than Ford, Affleck never inhabits Ryan’s quick-thinking moral authority. Instead of staking out a new direction after Ford’s tenure, The Sum of All Fears ended up being a dead end—a movie that you forget even while you’re watching it.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.