"The Sum Of All Fears" (IMDb listing) takes Jack Ryan back to where he belongs. Not as some authoritative action hero with unlimited resources and confidants all over the world, but as a meek CIA analyst who finds that world events end up in his lap. If you're like me, and have lost faith in this franchise over the last ten years, then stop worrying. "Sum Of All Fears" brings the Ryan franchise back to basics in this fiercely engaging picture.
Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck) is a younger, inexperienced CIA lackey just trying to keep his job afloat and maintain a relationship with his girlfriend (Bridget Moynahan, "Coyote Ugly"). As tension brews between Russia and the U.S. over terrorist incidents, Washington senior official Bill Cabot (Morgan Freeman) brings Ryan in to decipher the Russian leader's next move, and to investigate why Russian nuclear scientists keep mysteriously disappearing. In over his head both professionally and psychologically, Ryan is forced into action once he learns that responsibility for the escalating chaos doesn't lie with the U.S. or Russia, but a secret neo-Nazi group bent on wreaking havoc on the world with a black market nuclear bomb. With the help of elite CIA operative John Clark (Liev Schreiber), it's up to Ryan to push a little rational behavior into a climate where everyone wants to bomb each other to smithereens.
The Jack Ryan franchise began with 1990's "The Hunt For Red October." In using fresh faces (Alec Baldwin) alongside some powerful Hollywood veterans (Sean Connery, James Earl Jones), "Red October" quickly and assuredly set the pace for all the future Tom Clancy adaptations to follow. When Alec Baldwin passed on the role for the sequel, it was handed to Harrison Ford, thus losing any chance for subtlety. It's not that Ford is a bad actor, or that he intentionally trashed the Ryan name, but his instincts, geared more toward marquee space and creative authority, gave birth to two very different Ryan installments. Both 1992's "Patriot Games" and 1994's "Clear And Present Danger" are decent films ("Games" being the better of the two), but compared to "Red October," you can clearly see the deviation from ensemble adventure to ho-hum star turns. "Sum Of All Fears" is the first Ryan film since Ford vacated the role. With his departure the filmmakers appear eager to recreate the craftsmanship that made "Red October" so successful.
Without Ford in the way, "Sum" can get back to being a primal thriller, built on a foundation of suspense, good writing and no single actor taking center stage. By pinching the Hollywood out of the lead character, director Phil Alden Robinson ("Sneakers," "Field Of Dreams") is allowed to make the story itself the main attraction. You read that correctly, "Sum" is lead almost entirely by its story. Just like "Red October," in using some less than A-list talent to bring Clancy's richly detailed, horrifyingly real world to life, the film feels exactly like one of his books. Now movies lack the fundamental grace of any novel, but "Sum" tries to make up for this with a graceful attempt at political intrigue without the ludicrously mainstream broad-strokes that turn intelligence into mush for the masses. "Sum Of All Fears" is far from a brain-tickler, but after two movies with Ford turning the series into a carnival ride, it's such a welcome relief to find another set of hands who have taken this opportunity to mount the film back on solid rails.
Helping the film achieve "Red October" like success is star Ben Affleck. The young actor, almost thirty years younger than Ford, takes on the Ryan role the same way Baldwin did: ready to play for the team. It isn't a true starring role for Affleck; he's more like a large cog in the narrative wheel. Improving steadily as an actor recently, Affleck's reserved, fraidy-cat heroics work nicely in this often ghastly (as you might have caught in the "Paramount, shame on you" spoiler-filled TV spots and trailers) tale. Affleck is careful, and trusting in Robinson to not let him overwhelm the picture, and his teamwork with Morgan Freeman is not nearly as unsophisticated as you might think. Like Baldwin, Affleck has the chance to take this character and mature with him. But unlike Baldwin, I hope Affleck doesn't bail on the franchise, as the adventures of the young Jack Ryan are much more satisfying to watch than Ford's hackneyed heroics.
Also benefiting from the creative clean slate is Robinson. He's given free range to build up the franchise again, and he takes this chance to fill the cracks in the pavement with the perfect mix of tension and expected Clancy techno-babble. "Sum" is a trickier film in the Ryan saga, as its main thrust is a story about terrorists, nuclear weapons and American soil. Not the kind of topic one wants rendered in the current political climate. Nevertheless, Robinson keeps events and motivations very theatrical (including a smashing "Godfather"-style climax of retribution and resolution), while allowing Clancy's trademark real-world paranoia to seep through. "Sum Of All Fears" is just as gripping as "Red October," and almost as well made. The "Sum" story is bigger in scope than "Red October," thus losing crucial intimacy for the suspense sequences. Regardless, I feel Robinson has done a fantastic job restoring this franchise to its former glory, and also giving it a new life all of its own.
Filmfodder Grade: A-