Drugstore Doughboys

I wondered where Tom Clancy, the inexplicably popular flag-waving hack author of The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games, was going to turn for source material now that the Cold War has ended. As Gomer Pyle, a U.S. Marine with an understanding of the complexities of international politics about as highly evolved as Clancy's, used to say, "Surprise, surprise, surprise." Like so many of his right-wing yahoo counterparts (a number of whom, unfortunately, hold elected office), Clancy has refocused his attention on the war on drugs.

Clear and Present Danger, a well-made but overlong action movie that distinguishes itself from the Delta Force series primarily on the strength of its budget, access to big military toys, and the presence of Harrison Ford rather than Chuck Norris in the lead, is the latest film to advance the idiotic yet tragically widespread notion that our military should "take the gloves off" and teach those nasty Colombian drug lords a lesson. The movie's title refers to a statement made by a fictional President Bennett (although the jar of jelly beans on his desk leaves little doubt as to the real-life U.S. chief executive he is patterned after) labeling the Cali cartel's activities a "clear and present danger to the national security of the United States." This presumably justifies the deployment of a team of military commandos to sneak into Colombia and start raiding drug labs and assassinating cartel bigwigs. If a few hundred civilians get caught in the crossfire or incinerated in the "collateral damage," too bad. And so what if the unarmed peasants manning the labs and working the fields have no other means of putting food on their families' tables? Damn it, this is war!

Welcome to Clancyland, where we turn your favorite pigheaded, rah-rah, macho bullshit fantasies into popular cinema. Let's all cheer the fearless commando team as they bomb an underground coke refinery. Ignore the dozens of defenseless laborers cold-bloodedly killed. They're not Americans! What fun it is to shoot fish in a barrel!

Clancyland is no place for weak-kneed liberals troubled by the fact that the demand for drugs and the money that fuels the fires of narcoterrorism originate here in the good old U.S.A., or by the fact that the Colombian people have been paying the terrible price for our insatiable cocaine consumption in murdered judges, executed journalists, and massacred cops. In Clancyland we don't sweat little details like respect for national sovereignty. (Besides, if any country has a right to invade another, it's the Colombians who should be waging war against us, and who'd buy tickets to see that?)

From at least as far back as 1970's Little Big Man right up to 1992's Unforgiven, the grandest of American action-film genres, the western, has undergone revision. Hollywood has evolved from the early days when cowboys and cavalrymen were unqualified heroes and the Indians were godless, bloodthirsty savages. The Vietnam movie has matured as well, from John Wayne's laughable The Green Berets to Oliver Stone's shattering indictment of American intervention in Southeast Asia, Born on the Fourth of July. But for some reason it's still okay for action movies to portray Colombians as venal, profiteering villains. Maybe there are just too many powder-covered skeletons in too many Hollywood closets for any of our brave filmmakers to take the risk of portraying the Colombian people as the good guys, the victims of our country's primitive, short-sighted, jingoistic drug policies, rather than the heavies. But that would take guts, and we all know how daring those stalwart studio execs can be.

To his credit, Clancy, as is his custom, has publicly disowned the screen adaptation of his work. Of course, he's done it for all the wrong reasons. Clancy is not troubled much by the concept of our military as police force to the world. His admiration for the men and women who actually get to play with the sophisticated hardware is well-documented A Clancy's fictional protagonist, Jack Ryan, is a CIA agent with access to all the best playthings. He's also a champion of old-fashioned family values with the moral sophistication of a Boy Scout. (To be fair, I haven't read Clancy's book, so if he in fact evinces some hint of an understanding of U.S. complicity in the flourishing international drug trade, consider this my apology. John Milius, the swaggering posturer with a gun fetish responsible for reactionary crap like Red Dawn and male-bonding dreck like Big Wednesday, was one of three writers brought in to adapt Clancy's novel for the screen.

Milius is quite capable of single-handedly turning a fair novel into a one-sided fascist bullet ballet.)

For those of you who have no problem with the anti-Colombian sentiment or the brainless "let's git 'em!" heroics, Clear and Present Danger is still only a sporadically engaging action flick. The convoluted plot, with echoes of Watergate, Iran-contra, Vietnam, and Castro's purported cocaine connection, bogs down nearly every time the action returns to Washington, which is often. In one maudlin subplot that had no business making it onto the screen, Ryan's superior, Admiral Greer, is hospitalized for pancreatic cancer. You can bet that had the part been played by a lesser actor than James Earl Jones (who originated the role in Red October and followed it up in Patriot Games), the filmmakers would have excised the sequence. Maybe Jones's price tag rose a little too high, however; suffice it to say that neither his salary nor his extraneous presence should be a problem for future Clancy vehicles.

With the exception of one tense ambush sequence that explodes into chaos only to run on too long and sacrifice all credibility with Ryan's amazing escape, the gunfights are all generic shoot-'em-ups. The much ballyhooed realism and attention to detail that have characterized past Clancy films are abandoned here; all the supposedly Colombian footage is shot in Mexico (the only country, ironically enough, whose big-screen image may be worse than Colombia's). No one who's ever traveled through the lush Colombian countryside will buy it for a second.

Harrison Ford lends a workmanlike hand; he's looking a trifle long in the tooth to pull off the lean, mean, secret-agent routine, especially when it requires him to go traipsing down mountainsides and go mano a mano with the bad guys. But he's still got that reluctant hero shtick down pat, and his star power is one of the film's few saving graces. Willem Dafoe does what he can with the role of a CIA field operative who assembles the U.S. hit team, and Anne Archer gets significantly less opportunity to strut her stuff as Jack's supportive, fretful, yet completely self-actualized wife than she did in Patriot Games. Donald Moffat is an overly broad and buffoonish President Bennett; Henry Czerny's oily CIA deputy director is a stock company man; and Joaquim de Almeida as a shadowy cartel intelligence director with delusions of grandeur is by turns menacing and laughable.

Unlike previous adaptations of Clancy's novels, Clear and Present Danger acknowledges the past three decades in American history. The film opens, for example, on a Coast Guard cutter with a woman at the helm. Perhaps Clancy's righteous indignation toward government officials more concerned with getting re-elected than they are with doing the right thing is cause for hope. Maybe by the time he writes his next novel he'll have caught wind of Tailhook, or heard that the CIA winked at and possibly facilitated coke smuggling to support covert operations in Central America. Maybe he'll even learn that sometimes the Pentagon fudges numbers to stave off budget cuts, although hopefully that won't limit the number of cool toys he can work into his writing.

Maybe he'll even become so enlightened that he realizes the war on drugs begins and ends in this country. We have met the enemy and he is us, Tom. Get a clue.


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