The following is true: Jack Ryan is more interesting when he’s a middle-management wonk. A great fallacy was committed in these two most recent Jack Ryan movies (The Series Project covered the first three Jack Ryan movies last week), as our main character was, in both versions, transformed into a younger, sexier, less experienced version of himself in the hopes of – I assume – bulking up his overall sex appeal. Jack Ryan, however, should not necessarily be a lithe, capable sex machine. Jack Ryan should be a much cooler, more conservative creature who has long ago given up on being a man of action, and who is much more comfortable behind a desk.
Mind you, this is all from someone who has not read any Tom Clancy novels, and who is not familiar with Jack Ryan as a literary figure. This is speaking as someone who has now seen all five of the Jack Ryan feature films, and can only judge the movie versions of the character, and, accordingly, which of the movies are best and worst. I still stand by last week’s declaration that Clear and Present Danger is the best and most sophisticated of these movies, and, well, we’ll get to the worst in a second here.
I will also examine the mystery of The Sum of All Fears, a rather excellent espionage thriller that was not at all successful at the box office, and a film that few people refer to. Indeed, let’s do that immediately. Let’s take a look at…
The Sum of All Fears (dir. Phil Alden Robinson, 2002)
That same tautness and humor is carried over into the much larger-scaled The Sum of All Fears, a fun, complex, and wholly entertaining blockbuster. Jack Ryan may be younger this time around (he’s played by Ben Affleck now), but he still has the pencil-pushing appeal and social awkwardness that marks the character. The supporting characters are all funny and rich, and Robinson is wise enough to allow bit players to have a brief moment to shine, allowing this universe to feel lived-in, warm, and relatable. Note to screenwriters: if you have five people in a room with your main character, have them all speak at least a little bit.
The story is also kind of complex: A ball of still-active weaponized plutonium has been dug up in the Middle East after remaining underground for decades; the plutonium once belonged in an American bomb given to an Israeli plane that was shot down and forgotten about. That plutonium is eventually salvaged by a covert White Supremacist group who intends to use it to start a nuclear war between Russia and America. Russia is run by President Nemerov (Ciarán Hinds), and America is run by President Fowler (James Cromwell). The James Greer character (previously played by James Earl Jones) has been replaced by the just-as-mentor-ish William Cabot (Morgan Freeman).
Oh the treachery. It looks like there is governmental unrest, and the Russians are being devious and secretive, and Jack Ryan is called in to assess the situation. It’s up to Jack Ryan to eventually determine whose bomb it is, who set it off, and why. He’ll be the one to try to stop WWIII. I suppose it makes sense to make Jack younger in this film; he has to work all the harder to be heard by his embittered superiors.
What a cast! Liev Schreiber, Phillip Baker Hall, Bruce McGill, and Colm Feore round out the cast of extras. Here’s a fun thing: Lee Garlington has a bit role in this film as Jack’s boss. Garlington played a character named Dr. Elena Rhyzkov in Sneakers. In an early scene in The Sum of All Fears, the CIA analysts gossip about which Russian dignitary might be having an affair with one Dr. Rhyzkov. The Sum of All Fears and Sneakers take place in the same universe!
So if this film is so fun and taut and complex and possessed of such a nice cast, why do so few people talk about it? The easy answer is: timing. The Sum of All Fears was one of those many films about terrorism that had to be delayed following the actual World Trade Center incident of 2001. For a few years, there, film critics postulated that fun spy espionage thrillers like this one were instantly dead in the face of real-life dramatic disaster. At the very least, many audiences weren’t in the mood to see a football stadium full of people get nuked after they had watched tall buildings in New York actually fall over. As such, The Sum of All Fears – while ultimately financially successful – was swept under the rug as an embarrassment. Personally, I’d rather see a film like The Sum of All Fears about exciting and mechanical espionage and Cold War-related spy tinkering than a “gritty” exploitation flick like Man of Steel or World War Z that banks directly on 9/11 imagery. The former is, in my eye, far more tasteful.
So see this one. It’s very good. It’s just solid all around. The characters are strong, the script is strong, and the direction is strong. Robinson hasn’t made a film since (indeed, he’s only made four features total), although 2014 should see the release of a film of his called The Angriest Man in Brooklyn. I wish he would work more.
Sadly, this film was not a big enough hit to continue with Ben Affleck or with this particular continuity. Indeed, it would take over a decade to suss out what to do with Jack Ryan in the post-9/11 world. What we eventually got was the brand new Jack Ryan reboot, and the worst in the series.