The Hollywood office of the CIA has pulled off its slickest trick in years. When last we saw him, singlehandedly combating the Evil Empire in The Hunt for Red October, the agency's ace analyst, Jack Ryan, looked remarkably like the heartthrob actor Alec Baldwin. His new mission for the Langley-based Company, Patriot Games, evidently called for a top-secret face lift: Good ole Jack is now a dead ringer for the dour Harrison Ford.
So things will stand, the contract states, through at least two more adaptions of Tom Clancy's hugely popular techno-spy thrillers: Paramount Pictures clearly hopes to duplicate the steady bankability Ford brought to three Star Wars movies and a trio of Indiana Jones shoot-'em-ups.
With Ford safely in tow, the current product will doubtless bust a few blocks this summer, for one very good reason: It offers the same bland and familiar texture and taste as a Big Mac. Journeyman director Phillip Noyce (Blind Fury, Dead Calm) has deftly executed the action formula that calls for four widely scattered locations (Washington, D.C., and its 'burbs, London, Belfast, and a patch of North African desert), six car explosions, thirteen killings (most by automatic-rifle fire), three lukewarm sex scenes, and two instances of the Hero reading a goodnight story to his preternaturally precocious daughter. This movie makes plenty of noise, but no waves.
Clancy's mechanical best sellers hold far more appeal, of course, for military groupies and the high-tech weapons hobbyists spawned by the Reagan-Bush era than for readers of real fiction, and the gizmo-crammed movie version of Patriot Games dutifully fills their orders, too. In keeping with this, we get a first-ever glimpse into CIA headquarters (Why not? Clancy's the house flack). There's a gee-whiz demonstration of the kind of state-of-the-art satellite surveillance photography that can spot a bumblebee's stinger or an IRA assassin - make that a bumblebee's stinger on an IRA assassin - from 200 miles up. Finally, we witness a raid on a terrorist training camp transmitted live to the agency boys back in Langley. To them, the infrared images of killing, followed by statistical readouts, look like some unreal video game - or the CNN coverage of Mr. Bush's little confidence-builder in Iraq. But that's as far as irony gets here.
Want to paste on some characters? How about a dash of plot?
Ryan, now retired, goes on vacation to London with his wife (Anne Archer) and kid (Thora Birch), where he walks straight into an Irish bomb plot against a sniffy British royal (James Fox). Jumping into the fight on pure instinct, our hero winds up shooting one of the terrorists, setting into motion an obsessive revenge plot by the dead man's lunatic brother (Sean Bean, who played the retarded son in Jim Sheridan's The Field). This seething nutjob pursues Ryan, re-enlisted with the Company now, all the way to Washington, tries to kill the whole family and, predictably, loses an extremely violent final showdown (candlelit, naturally) in the corridors of the Ryans' comfy colonial homestead. It's Cape Fear with a dash of The Guns of Navarone.
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Meanwhile, so as not to offend anyone too much, screenwriters W. Peter Iliff and Donald Stewart (by way of Clancy) throw in a "good" IRA man (grizzled and old Richard Harris, playing a Guinness-guzzler named Paddy O'Neal) to counterbalance several evil renegade ones, while campaigning shamelessly for the CIA.
For Ford, the Jack Ryan character (underfed as it is) is an extension of the slightly drab good guy, driven to action by radical circumstances, that has become his dominant screen persona. ("It was rage. Pure rage," Ryan tells an academy friend about his heroics in London.) A solid husband and father with a square's noble streak, he wouldn't think of popping a bottle of Perrier-Jouet Flower Bottle at midnight, bedding a stray beauty, or cracking an elegant joke, a la James Bond. No, our Jack is all business, all sturdy family values, all wholesome service to Good and Right. Most likely the kind of guy Dan Quayle aspires to be.
Fine, fine. Patriot Games is a reasonably well-made entertainment whose fashionable right-wing tilt, wild stuntman daring, and array of lethal gadgets will surely pack audiences in. But this low-wattage hero, with his hint of sanctimony and his underdeveloped sense of humor, may find the going tough when sequel time rolls around. Like our candidates for president, he's a bit of a stiff.