Friday, January 17, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—The Sum of All Fears (2002) ***½

PG-13, 124 min.
Director: Phil Alden Robinson
Writers: Paul Attanasio, Daniel Pyne, Tom Clancy (novel)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman, James Cromwell, Ken Jenkins, Bruce McGill, John Beasley, Philip Baker Hall, Dale Godboldo, Lee Garlington, Jamie Harrold, Alan Bates, Bridget Moynahan, Josef Sommer, Colm Feore, Ciarán Hinds, Michael Byrne, Liev Schreiber, Ron Rifkin

For the fourth and final Jack Ryan installment to celebrate the release of Paramount’s latest Jack Ryan adventure “Shadow Recruit” in theaters today, I present to you evidence for Batfleck haters out there that Ben Affleck is a cool and collected choice to play Bruce Wayne in the upcoming Batman vs. Superman cinematic enterprise. Just a few years before the walls came crashing down on Affleck’s career, thanks to some very poor film choices and an ill-fated relationship with movie star/pop singer Jennifer Lopez, Affleck was on a rocket to the top of a promising leading man career with two excellent Paramount movies in release during 2002. The first was a surprising thriller, overlooked by most, “Changing Lanes”. Perhaps I’ll review that one in anticipation of his sure to be next critical hit this fall “Gone Girl”.

The second was a strange move by Paramount that involved the handing down of a cinematic mantle that the studio hoped to parlay into a James Bond style ongoing franchise of movies, “The Sum of All Fears”. After only four films, Ben Affleck was the already the third actor to take on the role of CIA American spy hero Jack Ryan. I don’t know if the studio felt Harrison Ford was too old to do with the character what they wanted to, or if Ford himself did not wish to return for a third film; but Paramount’s approach to this fourth Ryan installment was one of the earliest “reboot” concepts that I can remember.

Whenever MGM and United Artists introduced a new actor in the Bond role, it was always pretty much business as usual. There was a new face, but it wasn’t like they went back to the drawing board, at least until Sony eventually ended up with the property and cast Daniel Craig in the role for “Casino Royale”. But that was well after Paramount decided to bring the character of Jack Ryan back to his origins while sticking with their plan to adapt the next book in the series after “Clear and Present Danger”. This entailed quite a bit of reworking of the details of the plot in order to account for Ryan just starting out with a CIA desk job as opposed to holding the director’s seat as he did in the book.

Once again, I think they chose well in their actor to play Ryan. Affleck hadn’t really handled an all out action role yet. Despite his good looks he was part of the geek core Hollywood that was introduced through micro-budgeted independent films like those he starred in for Kevin Smith. Of course, unlike the aging Ford, Affleck had the potential to take the character of Ryan into a much more action-oriented arena, which I believe was the full motivation behind Paramount’s reboot move.

The story itself makes for a very similar one to the franchise’s masterful first film “The Hunt for Red October”. The difference being that the Cold War was over and terrorism had become the focus of all threats against America. Of course, using a new power structure in Russia to misdirect the apparent threat to a man that only Ryan truly knows is what really draws the parallels to that first film. It still works here. Replacing one omniscient powerfully voiced black man with another might make it difficult to distinguish the two as well.

The most powerful element of the movie, however, may have been its timing. With a release date less than a year after 9/11, its plot involving a successful terrorist attack on American soil, struck a chord that many people couldn’t handle at the time. It’s easier to watch the movie today. The nuclear bombing of a crowded sports complex in Baltimore doesn’t quite leave the pit in your stomach it once did. Despite the CGI assisted devastation of that aspect of the plot, the story is still driven by Ryan’s brain more than anyone’s brawn.

This is what I think Tom Clancy had initially intended when he created this hero. He wanted to shine a light on how much the efforts of these American heroes is driven by the think tank foundation of the CIA rather than the G.I Joe mentality that is generally portrayed as espionage in Hollywood. I’m glad to see that Paramount has returned to its franchise with this new movie starring a fourth actor, Chris Pine, in the potentially iconic role. I just hope they don’t forget that it’s Ryan’s brainpower that made the first four films work, rather than his ability to shoot bad guys who can’t aim.

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