Total Disaster

'The Sum of All Fears' blows what should have been another great Jack Ryan adventure to kingdom come.


May 31, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Sum of All Fears is as self-important as the American president at the center of it, who worries more about his place in history than about how to save his country from apocalypse. It's the fourth film in the Tom Clancy-based CIA adventure series featuring the smart, courageous analyst Jack Ryan. All it takes from Clancy's 914-page 1991 novel is the detonation of a nuclear device at a championship football game and Ryan's struggle to convince his commander-in-chief that the Russian government isn't responsible.

As in the novel, the bomb is an Israeli one lost in the chaos of the Yom Kippur War. But the political trigger is no longer the search for peace in the Middle East; it's the attempt of neo-Nazis to foment nuclear war between the United States and Russia, though that conflagration would leave fascists nothing to rule except a ghost-town of a planet. The premise resembles the notorious National Lampoon cover, "Buy this issue or we'll shoot this dog!" It puts the squeeze on the audience and gives the filmmakers something 007 never had: a license to preach.

The prospect of making Baltimore the setting for a nuclear nightmare and inserting it in the middle of a spy vs. spy blockbuster must have been what attracted director Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams) and writers Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show) and Daniel Pyne (Any Given Sunday). They have no discernible talent for creating excitement out of realistic intrigue or wringing suspense from high-stakes espionage or conjuring a gritty thinking-man's glamour out of a CIA job. Director Phillip Noyce and Harrison Ford (as Ryan), despite Ford's tendency to grimace when he's serious, achieved those goals to varying degrees in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, still the best films in the series.

All Robinson and company manage to do is apply a patina of sobriety to their presentation of a far younger and more callow Ryan - the perennially collegiate Ben Affleck - who is now courting a classy surgeon (Bridget Moynahan) instead of raising kids with her. Morgan Freeman is the CIA director who instructs Ryan on how to act in front of American and Russian presidents, and Liev Schreiber appears as a veteran agent and troubleshooter. Apart from Schreiber's sardonic scowl and Freeman's twinkle, the actors don't radiate any energy - the script reduces the likes of James Cromwell (as the president) and Philip Baker Hall, Ron Rifkin and Bruce McGill (as his top advisers) to cryogenic imitations of themselves.

The screenplay's lack of gamesmanship makes you yearn for James Bond stolen-bomb movies like Thunderball and Never Say Never Again. Robinson and company think they can win our favor by flattery: the audience gets to assemble the puzzle involving the Israeli nuke and three missing Russian scientists and the neo-Nazi industrialist (Alan Bates) long before Ryan gets around to it. Our hero has one idea in the whole picture: He contends that the new Russian president (Ciaran Hinds) is no hard-liner, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Apart from using his language skills to get himself and Schreiber out of a jam, Ryan must rely on Freeman's favorite "back-channel" contact in Russia for the rest of his good deeds.

Basically, The Sum of All Fears is a throwback to the disaster films of the 1970s, especially Black Sunday (which Clancy refers to in his book). Its popularity will depend on whether people want to see Baltimore vaporized as much as they wanted to see Los Angeles pulverized in Earthquake. The script is so niggling with details, it's as if the filmmakers didn't want to tax the consciousness of 10-year-olds.

Novelists like Clancy or, in a different way, Michael Crichton, sell millions of books partly because they popularize history and science. Skim through any section of Clancy's The Sum of All Fears and at least you find interesting stuff about, say, CIA communications systems or the proper mounting of a bomb. These days, in Hollywood, moviemakers have taken the comic catch phrase "Too much information" and turned it into a screenwriting tool. As a spy film, The Sum of All Fears is flaccid, and as an expose of nuclear threats, there's not enough information.

Sum of All Fears

Starring Ben Affleck and Morgan Freeman

Directed by Phil Alden Robinson

Rated PG-13

Released by Paramount

Running time 118 minutes

Sun Score: * 1/2

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