This review was corrected on May 28, 2002.
Jack Ryan reverses the aging process, and the Cold War stubbornly returns with a vengeance in “The Sum of All Fears,” a film that’s a more satisfying whole than are some of its curious parts. Here played by Ben Affleck, mega-selling techno-thriller scribe Tom Clancy’s Ryan has gone through previous time warps in age, as when Alec Baldwin’s Ryan in “The Hunt for Red October” grew into Harrison Ford in “Patriot Games.” Skeptical fans who miss Ford may pass on “Fears,” but solid, quality summer entertainment with an adult accent will produce sturdy mid-range returns.
The much younger Affleck is, at first glance, a somewhat jarring change of face, especially since action is set in a present day that’s fast- forwarded 11 years from the novel’s time frame. His wrinkle-free Ryan is a kind of post-grad info geek and so-called “historian” for the CIA, green to the worlds of CIA war rooms and covert ops. He’s unmarried, with a doctor g.f. (Bridget Moynahan); it’s tempting to ponder if this isn’t Jack Ryan’s son. Other, more drastic — and sometimes prescient — changes to the novel have been made by scripters Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne, creating a world in which Euro-fascists have the desire and means to create nuclear mischief between former superpower rivals.
Director Phil Alden Robinson, absent from features for a decade since his much lighter view of spooks, “Sneakers,” has done just about everything he can do to build a sleek, involving and — for a few minutes — terrifying movie that can get viewers past the young Ryan factor. Helmer has a generally sure script, and he adheres to Clancy’s school of technical realism, crafting a strong, four-minute opening credit sequence showing how an Israeli fighter jet carrying a single nuke is blown out of the sky, with the nuke left intact and buried for 29 years in the ground under the Golan Heights.
There’s more humor in the first 15 minutes than in most of Clancy’s multi-hundred-page tome, which laboriously depicts a motley cadre of American Indians, former East Germans and Middle Eastern terrorists uniting to retrieve the lost Israeli bomb and detonate it during a football game in Denver. Pic’s baddies, in an ironic twist of Clancy’s usual right-wing politics, are now white, middle European and rich, led by Dressler (Alan Bates), whose speeches echo those of Jean-Marie Le Pen and other radical right politicos currently making a stir on the Continent. While U.S. President Fowler (James Cromwell) — who tellingly mispronounces foreign terms — is having a half-serious Def-Con exercise with his braintrust, including CIA director Cabot (Morgan Freeman), Ryan enjoys a near frat house atmosphere in a CIA office den with his fellow cybernauts.
The happy Yanks are in for a shock, when the Russ prez, somewhat comically, keels over dead and is replaced by Nemerov (Ciaran Hinds). As the top Nemerov specialist, the somewhat reluctant Ryan is recruited by Cabot to be his unofficial advisor. Ryan’s insistence the new Russian topper isn’t a hardliner runs counter to the presumptions of many in the White House foreign policy circle, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Secretary Becker (Philip Baker Hall), National Security Adviser Revell (Bruce McGill) and State’s top man Owens (Ron Rifkin).
Action gradually builds, jumping from continent to continent. Back in the Golan, a shady type named Olson (Colm Feore) eyes the unearthed bomb, swindles local Arab black marketeers out of it and ships it to a Ukraine lab, where Dressler’s scientists extract the plutonium for a new, deadly device. Even before the first hour is up, by which point Ryan is introduced to some of the rough side of the spy biz by shadowy yet magnetic operative John Clark (Liev Schreiber), the script has nearly more than it can handle, what with a bio-attack launched by rogue Russian generals designed to implicate Nemerov. The bad guys successfully deliver the bomb to the Super Bowl in Baltimore, setting off a sequence superbly cut (by editor Neil Travis), lensed in bleached tones and stripped of most sound as the nuke devastates the city.
But an exploding nuke is a hard act to follow, and the race between White House hawks lusting for revenge, and Ryan (with Clark’s long-distance help) piecing together the true nature of the bomb and those responsible is never quite the nail-biter the filmmakers intend. Nevertheless, there’s considerable fascination in nuclear brinkmanship between Moscow and the president’s men.
Affleck, who plays less of an action-type than Ford, here is just one of the guys. He’s accompanied by exceptionally strong thesps, led by Schreiber, whose Clark (hero of Clancy’s recent books) augers a terrific spy movie all by himself. Cromwell, McGill, Hall and Rifkin make for an unexpectedly emotional White House corps, while Freeman — though co-star billed — has relatively brief screen time that’s rich with gravitas. Irish thesp Hinds, made pasty-faced, plays a game of suggesting an evil Russ leader who really isn’t. Weak point is unquestionably Ryan’s love life, which Moynahan does little to make special.
Few Hollywood spy thrillers have been more handsome than this one, lensed in glorious anamorphic widescreen by John Lindley. Physical verisimilitude, care of ace production designer Jeannine Oppewall, is extraordinary, from Dressler’s lush quarters, Nemerov’s Kremlin bedroom and a turbulent Air Force One office to a set depicting a closed session of a congressional intelligence committee hearing. Jerry Goldsmith’s score will especially bring joy to fans of his great ’60s-era work. Foreign lingo dialogue and careful subtitling add to the serious patina.