NOW PLAYING: The Sum of All Fears

Posted: Sunday, June 02, 2002

For those of you out there who are devoted Tom Clancy fans (and there must be quite a few of you; the man sells a zillion copies of every book), his latest novel to film translation is going to leave you baffled. In the novel, The Sum of All Fears, our hero, Jack Ryan, is Deputy Director of the CIA and at the height of his career (though in a later novel he does become President.)

The villains are Arab terrorists, and their goal is to destroy Israel, the U.S., and Russia by setting off an old Israeli nuke on American soil, triggering a war between the two superpowers. It's a worthy story for a movie treatment, even if it does hit a little close to home after 9-11. The film now in theaters, however, is quite a bit different.

First of all, we can't have Arab terrorists anymore. I'm not sure exactly why, as there are plenty of them out there to choose from, but I guess it would seem crass. So, the filmmakers decide to turn to the most dependable villain of all, Nazis: the bad guy everyone can hate. In this film, the poor Arabs just find the bomb, but are duped out of it by a mean ol' South African in league with the Aryans. Another problem the filmmakers ran into was the loss of Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan. Ford had been perfect as Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, but decided against another outing, so the powers that be decided they needed someone hot, a real box office draw to make this picture work. Ben Affleck. Yeah, he's hot alright, but he's maybe thirty years old, and looks no more than twenty-five. He looks more like a male model than director of the CIA. The hiring of Ben precipitated the need to bring Ryan's age and rank down to believable levels. So now he's just an analyst, just beginning his career in the CIA, just getting to know his future wife. Morgan Freeman is brought in as Cabbot, director of the agency, and Ryan's mentor. Now, I need to point out, the movie takes place in the present day. Just because Ryan's jumped backward in time, doesn't mean the rest of us do.

I know that many of you are wondering why I am babbling on about this. As my wife says, "Who cares? Clear and Present Danger was nearly ten years ago. I can't imagine anyone on the peninsula caring about this issue but you." And she may be right. Sum of All Fears makes no reference to any other Ryan outings, and, taken on it's own merits, is a pretty good movie. There's plenty of action, though it's smarter than to inundate us with it. The suspense is genuine, and the political tension is just what you would expect from a good Tom Clancy thriller. Even though I had trouble buying Ben Affleck in the part, his acting, as well as the rest of the cast, was above average. Of course, Morgan Freeman can play an aging mentor like Jack Nicholson can play crazy, so it wasn't much of a stretch for him. But James Cromwell as the embattled President is excellent, as is Liev Shrieber in a relatively small role as CIA spook, John Clark. The movie starts a little slow, but it may have been just me trying to get my bearings. By the time we get to the disaster (which they totally give away in the preview, by the way) however, the story kicks into high gear and keeps you on the edge of your seat all the way up to the closing credits.

High on thrills and fun though it may be, the film is weak on political stance. First they waffle on the whole Arab terrorist issue and decide to resurrect the oh-so-easy Nazis. See, it's the internet that makes it all possible now. All the Aryans in the world can now be in contact and plan their dastardly deeds with impunity. Arabs trying to destroy Israel, now that I believe. I'm not even sure what these Nazis were hoping to accomplish, aside from pitting the U.S. and Russia against each other. Also, the film seems to want to make a strong statement about war-torn Czechnya, the Russian province struggling for independence. Unfortunately, the whole side-story is dropped pretty quickly after the real action begins.

The Sum of All Fears will probably do pretty well at the box office. As I said, Ben Affleck's hot right now, and the Star Wars/Spider-Man fervor will have started to die down. And I guess that's fine. Though it has quite a few little problems within, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Grade: B-

The Sum of All Fears is rated PG-13 for language and violence.

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