Jack Ryan takes on the Colombian drug cartels and some nefarious members of a duplicitous U.S. government in “Clear and Present Danger,” the third entry in Paramount’s Tom Clancy franchise. Narrative complexity and momentum make this a true cinematic equivalent of an absorbing page-turner. Even if the excitement only occasionally reaches thrilling levels, its bestseller profile, action quotient and Harrison Ford as a can-do hero assure muscular late-summer B.O. for this well-tooled entertainment.
Although the format is familiar and filmmakers sometimes work up a sweat just getting all the necessary exposition and info up onscreen, pic’s complex plot, double-edged characters and political relevance to recent history help make this the most interesting of the three Clancy adaptations, at least from a content p.o.v.
Despite Ryan’s moral uprightness and the presence of some undiluted villains, many of the issues here are painted in shades of gray rather than simplistic black-and-white, which is all to the good in terms of creating dramatic ambiguity if not for providing elemental cheap thrills.
Setting the nasty chain of events in motion is the murder of a prominent U.S. businessman and friend of the president who, it turns out, has been in league with the cartels.
Embarrassed and awakened to the ineffectiveness of the country’s war on drugs, the prez (Donald Moffat) has Ryan (Ford), now acting CIA deputy director of intelligence due to the illness of his boss (James Earl Jones), pursue the matter, while secretly setting loose national security adviser James Cutter (Harris Yulin) and CIA hard-liner Robert Ritter (Henry Czerny) to send a paramilitary force against the drug lords.
To this end, they hire CIA cowboy Clark (Willem Dafoe), who leads a unit of Latino guerrilla fighters into the jungle to hit the operations of drug kingpin Ernesto Escobedo (Miguel Sandoval).
Latter is none too pleased the U.S. is laying claim to the $ 650 million stash he shared with the president’s late friend. His response is to launch a rocket attack on a convoy of U.S. politicos and operatives, including Ryan, trapped in a narrow Bogota street, which makes for the film’s most eventful and original action set piece.
Ryan is kept in the dark as long as possible about the extra-legalcombat mission, as well as about private discussions between Cutter and Escobedo’s suave lawyer, Felix Cortez (Joaquim de Almeida), a former Castro aide who harbors ambitions of replacing his boss as top dog in Colombia.
When Ryan finds out, the straight-arrow patriot becomes damn mad, and is forced to fight rear-guard battles with the president’s men just as he attempts to rescue what’s left of the abandoned guerrilla unit and settle matters once and for all with Escobedo and Cortez.
It’s a lot of incident to pack into a feature, and the talents of three top Hollywood screenwriters — Donald Stewart, Steven Zaillian and John Milius — have been well, if not deeply, used to ensure that the story is coherent and the characters have at least a semblance of plausibility.
To their credit, and that of director Phillip Noyce, repeating from “Patriot Games,” the far-ranging plot isn’t confusing, and many brief moments of screen time make the required impression.
On an action level, pic is less high-charged than numerous other efforts of its ilk, although a sequence in which the U.S. drops a smart bomb on a drug lord conclave is vivid.
Final action scene feels a bit flat and anticlimactic, in that it’s mainly routine chase and gunplay stuff between Ryan and Cortez, with a predictable outcome.
More interesting is the harsh take on the way the U.S. government conducts foreign policy.
With Moffat as a leader with untold links to shady businessmen and a way of letting his underlings know what he wants done without assuming personal responsibility himself, yarn ultimately forces its hero, Ryan, to choose between covering up for the men who have misled and lied to him, or embarrassing the country by standing up for the truth.
Anxious to express his character’s confusion, reticence and wariness whenever possible, Ford still can’t help but be the noble stalwart for what he sees as the nation’s traditional virtues.
Dafoe seems to enjoy playing an action part and might have been given more to do. The villains shine, particularly de Almeida as the smooth, amoral Latin counselor, Czerny as the crafty CIA deputy and Yulin as the president’s dirty operator.
As the Pablo Escobar figure, Sandoval neatly conveys how such vicious criminals can also be family men adored by those around them.
Anne Archer, as Ryan’s wife, is asked to be supportive and worried in equal measure. Incisive character sketches are provided by Ann Magnuson, as a government secretary duped and betrayed by her lover Cortez, and Hope Lange, as a determined senator.
Production values are customarily expensive-looking and professional, with an assortment of Mexican locations attractively standing in for South American settings.
James Horner’s score goes in some interesting and unusual directions for this sort of genre item.