Tom Clancy was right the first time. Paramount’s “Patriot Games” is an expensive stiff. Mindless, morally repugnant and ineptly directed to boot, it’s a shoddy followup to Par’s 1990 hit “The Hunt for Red October.” Also based on a best-selling Clancy novel about intrepid CIA analyst Jack Ryan, the ultra-violent, fascistic, blatantly anti-Irish “Patriot Games” stars a dour Harrison Ford, whose box office allure should ensure a big opening before downbeat word-of-mouth spreads like wildfire.
“Hunt for Red October” star Alec Baldwin’s decision to forgo this project for the Broadway revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” was greeted with smug head-shaking in Hollywood at the time, but now seems like a wise career move. If producers Mace Neufeld and Robert Rehme don’t raise their standards next time out (Ford is pacted for two more Clancy films), Par’s Jack Ryan tentpole may collapse prematurely.
The “Patriot Games” novel is a right-wing cartoon of the current British-Irish political situation, full of implausibilities and tending toward ridiculously overblown action setpieces, but it has an inescapable gut-wrenching emotional power that’s sorely lacking in this watered-down adaptation by W. Peter Iliff and Donald Stewart.
Director Philip Noyce, whose major previous credit was the low-budgetAustralian pic “Dead Calm,” is way out of his depths here, making a movie that’s by turns deadly dull and dully deadly. Noyce overrelies on tight closeups that eliminate visual and social context, and his handling of action sequences is incoherent, most seriously in the would-be spectacular climax.
Ford’s Ryan, at the onset, has left the CIA to teach naval history at Annapolis. A visit to London with his family places him in the middle of an attack on a high British official (James Fox) by what Ford later identifies as “some ultra-violent faction of the IRA.” His rescue of Fox and killing of one attacker makes him the quarry of a revengeful, ice-blooded IRA man (Sean Bean).
The novel’s pontifications on the political context are shallow and unabashedly biased toward the British, but the book does take the time to address the subject. That’s more than can be said for the film, which takes about 20 seconds to do so in a TV sound bite of a Sinn Fein political rep (Richard Harris), whose comments can barely be heard above the Ford family’s domestic chatter.
Harris makes a point that should have been allowed to play much more loudly: that when Americans talk of their own uprising against their British colonial rulers, they call the revolutionaries “patriots,” not “terrorists.” This film has little time for such distinctions or for the nuances of the Irish cause, taking the side of the British occupying forces and their CIA allies against what it continually labels as “terrorists.”
The case is sentimentally loaded by painting the IRA faction as monsters who don’t hesitate to attack Ford’s wife (Anne Archer) and small daughter (Thora Birch) as part of Bean’s personal vendetta.
Though the Harris character disowns the faction as loose cannons within the IRA, Clancy’s book portrays them as “an outcast outfit” who have left the IRA to work in opposition to the policies of the main revolutionary body by taking the war to the royal family.
Prince Charles and his family are the targets in the book–an angle that no doubt would have presented insuperable problems on screen–and while making the minister of state for Northern Ireland the target would seem to make more sense politically, Fox also is a royal (a distant cousin of the queen), which makes his attackers seem as foolishly reckless as those in the book.
A major implausibility in both versions is that the radical cell would allow and help a grieving member (Bean) to put political realities aside to hunt down a CIA man on his home turf.
Mad dog Bean and his brighter superior (Patrick Bergin) argue about this, but Bean prevails, disastrous though his grudge turns out to be for them all.
Nor does it make sense that the cell would be able to operate so easily and with such massive firepower on American soil, or that Fox would be so poorly protected when visiting Ford’s home as he is in the film.
Even a master action director would have trouble making the audience swallow those points, and Noyce’s staging of the elaborate finale (much of it in semi-darkness) is laughable.
While Ford is a solid blend of thought and action in his James Bondish role, and his need to protect his family gives the film some gripping moments, the film’s moral viewpoint is strictly neanderthal.
His rejoining the CIA to further a personal revenge and his involvement (however troubled) in a CIA/British Special Air Services hit on a suspected IRA camp in North Africa makes him little better than the people he is fighting.
That clearly was not the intent of the filmmakers, who see their CIA hero’s use of firepower and brute force as a knuckleheaded moral crusade of “us” vs. “them” for the soul of Western society.
Archer, who’s playing a supposedly sensitive eye surgeon, defines the moral tone by telling Ford about Bean, “You get him, Jack. I don’t care what you have to do–just get him.”
Technically, the film doesn’t look or sound good, aside from some fascinating simulations by the Video Image process of CIA satellite surveillance.
Donald McAlpine’s murky lensing is an eyesore, and the score by the usually reliable James Horner is full of discordant and insulting riffs on Irish folk music.