With director Kenneth Branagh’s Jack Ryan reboot (this will be #4) set for release in early 2014, Paramount has released a nifty Bluray boxed-set of the four Jack Ryan movies that came before, and has done so just in time for Christmas. Though the extras are a little skimpy (except for the title no one cares about, “The Sum of All Fears”), the widescreen transfers are gorgeous, as is the sound quality.
Here are snap reviews in order of my favorite to least favorite:
Clear and Present Danger (1994) – Director Phillip Noyce and star Harrison Ford reunited for their second and last go-round in the franchise, with what is easily the most cynical of the series. A lawless president (with an affection for jellybeans) non-order orders his Director of National Security to launch an illegal war against a Columbian drug cartel. Ryan (a superb Ford) finds himself caught right in the middle of the lawless government he works for and a drug cartel caught up in a Machiavellian power struggle.
Eventually both sides find themselves in over their heads, and it’s left to Ryan to unravel the conspiracy and personally head out into the field to right some wrongs.
Even Noyce’s childish politics can’t undermine a superbly layered and plotted script that keeps the political intrigue churning and action set-pieces popping. A rocket-propelled grenade attack on an American diplomatic convoy delivers the best action sequence of the franchise (and the 90’s). And although he’s 20 years older than author Tom Clancy envisioned, Ford nails the character’s intelligence, sincerity, decency, and slow burn to action.
The Hunt for Red October (1990) – It’s a shame Alec Baldwin didn’t stick with franchise. He isn’t great as Jack Ryan, but like everyone who has assumed the role of James Bond, there is little doubt Baldwin would have grown beautifully into the role.
At 32, the then-youthful Baldwin better embodies Clancy’s vision of a young CIA analyst thrust on to the world stage and in over his head thanks to both his intelligence and happenstance. Baldwin’s prickly personality (which is what made Baldwin a star on screen and loathsome in real life) is always roiling beneath the character’s surface, and this gives Ryan a live-wire intelligence and unpredictability that makes the improbable plot he drives believable.
When a legendary Soviet submarine commander (Sean Connery – who steals the movie) defects and takes the Russian sub Red October with him, Ryan’s caught in the middle of an American government understandably terrified by the first-strike submarine headed their way and a Russian government intent on destroying the sub.
A tight, well-plotted screenplay and John McTiernan’s direction ensure the story keeps humming. “Red October” is also a breath of fresh air politically. The idea that American liberty is superior to Soviet tyranny is one of the story’s driving themes, and never questioned.
A terrific supporting cast includes James Earl Jones, Scott Glenn, Sam Neill, and the late-great Richard Jordan, whose final line is unforgettable.
Patriot Games (1992) – This is when Harrison Ford took over from Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan, but the transition from “Red October” is pretty seamless. At the age of 50, Ford was still able to project an earnestness that made him seem youthful, and James Earl Jones returns as Ryan’s mentor and friend, Vice Admiral Greer.
This time Ryan find himself and his family targeted by an extremist breakaway group of the Irish Republican Army. A serviceable thriller that ranks as above average thanks to a theme about vengeance that drives both Ryan and his chief antagonist (an effective Sean Bean).
This one loses points for wasting actor Richard Harris.
Sum of All Fears (2002) – “A Clear and Present Danger” was a box office hit in 1994, so why Ford didn’t continue in the role seems inexplicable. A long 8 years later, though, Paramount went for its third reboot with results that would kill the franchise for another dozen years.
Clancy purists were understandably furious at Paramount’s cowardly, clichéd, boring, and politically correct decision to swap out the author’s more realistic Islamic terrorists (especially the year after the September 11 attacks ) with *yawn* white guy Euro-trash Nazis. But that was just the first of the film’s many missteps.
The idea was to take the Jack Ryan character all the way back to the beginning with an origin story. The problem is that as capable as Ben Affleck might be in real life, as an actor he has never been able to project intelligence, resourcefulness, or anything close to authority.
The script is also a dud. The too-few subplots, terminally dull villains, strained credibility (especially in the last third), and scenes of Ryan running through disaster scenes that are obviously film sets, give “The Sum of All Fears” a deadly made-for-television quality.
The story’s only bright spot is Liev Schreiber’s mysterious CIA fixer, who gets too little screen time. But when Schreiber is on screen, you keep wondering why he wasn’t cast as Jack Ryan.
Still, though, there’s a terrific sequence involving a nuclear blast and the film is watchable.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC