Taking on the role of Jack Ryan, John Krasinski follows in the footsteps of then-unlikely action heroes Bruce Willis, Will Smith and Chris Pratt.
On August 31, Amazon Prime Video debuts its most hyped series yet, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, featuring the late warmongering author’s CIA analyst hero portrayed in various films over the past 30 years by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine. This time, John Krasinski takes the mantle of the American hero, a casting choice at which some might smirk, given that Krasinski is best known for his role as Jim Halpert in the NBC sitcom The Office. For nearly a decade Halpert, the shaggy-haired, laconic wisecracker, defined John Krasinski’s on-screen persona. He has clearly attempted to shake it, most recently in A Quiet Place, the horror film he co-wrote and directed, and in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.
The casting of Krasinski in films like 13 Hours and TV series like Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan may seem counterintuitive after he spent nine seasons on The Office playing the everyman at paper company Dunder Mifflin. In an office full of eccentric characters, Jim Halpert and Jenna Fischer’s Pam represented the audience. They were the relatable characters through whose eyes the audience would witness and comment upon the zany antics of the other drones in the office. That very characteristic is, in fact, what suits Krasinski for the role of Jack Ryan. And this kind of casting choice is far from unprecedented.
Action movies, like all genres, go through cycles that reflect either audience tastes or what Hollywood studios perceive as audience tastes. During the 1980s, which was the end of the Cold War era and the beginning of the modern blockbuster action movie, the well-sculpted monosyllabic superhumans Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone dominated. They were far from representatives of the audience. Rather, Stallone in the Rambo films and Schwarzenegger in films like The Terminator, Commando and Predator were godlike in their abilities. While their characters did encounter necessary conflict, there was little to no doubt they would prevail, for they were bigger and stronger than anyone else who crossed their paths. When they did speak (not often), their dialogue would reflect their inherent superiority over mere mortals. There’s a reason Schwarzenegger’s most-remembered line of dialogue — “I’ll be back” — barely constitutes a line of dialogue at all.
Die Hard (1988), however, changed the model for the modern action hero when Bruce Willis was cast as ordinary cop John McClane, thrust into the role of champion when terrorists hold his estranged wife and others hostage in the marvelously named Nakatomi Tower. Given Willis’s career trajectory over the past 30 years and his own descent into monosyllabic vigilantism, it’s easy to forget he was primarily known as a comedic actor when he was cast in Die Hard. At the time, he was starring in ABC’s Moonlighting, an innovative romantic comedy series that featured him as David Addison, a wisecracking detective who runs the Blue Moon Detective Agency and spars with his partner Maddie (Cybill Shepherd).
The series, which was also one of the first comedy series driven by a “will-they-won’t-they” romantic plot, was an immediate sensation with its sly humor and fantasy sequences, and Willis became a star. When he graduated to the big screen in 1987, his first two films were Blind Date and Sunset, both helmed by comedy director Blake Edwards. Sadly, the legendary Pink Panther director was at the twilight of his career and both movies were poor, but both were at least meant to be comedies and reflected the persona Willis had established in Moonlighting.
What made Die Hard so compelling in the end weren’t only the spectacularly successful set pieces and action sequences but also Willis’s personality, which combined his wisecracking persona with a defiant, reluctant heroism. The role helped define a new type of blockbuster action hero who was more man than god. Audiences could relate to him. We saw genuine fear of mortality in Willis, and we shared that fear because he was clearly destructible. One of the most admired sequences was when the barefoot Willis, in terrible pain, had to traverse a floor filled with broken glass. One could never imagine Stallone or Schwarzenegger grimacing in pain during that sequence.
Another unlikely action hero who changed the game was Will Smith, who has now been a mainstay in action heroes for over 20 years. Many might forget he, too, made for an unlikely hero. He originally rose to fame as half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince with their album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper (1988). Smith established his genial personality in songs like “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” which brought him unlikely crossover fame on MTV, which he leveraged into a starring role on NBC’s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Smith, with his warm personality, excelled on the harmless family sitcom, which became a hit in its own right.
Will Smith was, however, far too restless and ambitious to rest on his laurels. His first major film role, in an adaptation of John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation, was a dramatic departure for the sitcom star, but it did play upon his guileless charm in his portrayal of a con man. It didn’t seem an unreasonable stretch. Bad Boys and Independence Day, on the other hand? Few saw those coming.
The Men in Black films cemented Smith’s screen persona, seamlessly integrating his charm and wisecracks into a heroic figure.
Even after Bruce Willis and Will Smith established the mortal action hero, modern audiences might still feel Krasinski is an unusual choice to play Jack Ryan. That’s because in recent years, the pendulum has swung again to giant, bulked-up heroes. With the level of sophistication CGI has reached in the past 15 years, heroes can now achieve impossible feats that would instantly tear a normal human apart, even when they’re not strictly superheroes. In this environment, other godlike screen personalities, such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson emerged. While Johnson adds a touch of warmth and humor to the character of the unbeatable giant, he’s still the unbeatable giant. With a physique that would make Zeus bow down in shame, Johnson appears immortal.
The tide may be turning again, however. In recent years, some audiences and filmmakers have tired of the easy effects that CGI provides. Most notably, the new Star Wars films eschew the CGI-heavy proclivities of the prequels for practical effects and actual human stunt work. There is merit in seeing humans do things that humans can do.
Reflecting perhaps some desire for relatable action heroes is the most recent actor to make the transition to hero from ordinary schlub, perhaps the most unlikely of all: Chris Pratt. His meteoric ascent to big-screen hero with Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World seemed the most unexpected transformation of all. As Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation, Pratt was a doughy, enormously likable doofus. It seemed peculiar at first glance that he was cast in such heroic roles. However, it was his likability that cemented his success, and numerous sequels to those first hits have given Pratt what appears to be considerable staying power.
Will Krasinski reach the heights of success that Chris Pratt has? Time will tell. Amazon has poured an estimated $8 million per episode for Jack Ryan, and they’re betting audiences will accept John Krasinski as an action hero. It just might work.