21 January 2014

JACK AND THE CARTELS

Having figured out how to make a Jack Ryan action thriller with 1992's Patriot Games, the same cluster of filmmakers (with a couple of swaps here and there) got to do it again two years later with Clear and Present Danger, in the process managing to improve virtually across the board. And I say "virtually" only because Harrison Ford's performance as the spy was already at such a tremendous level of achievement the first time around, though given how much more complexity is added to Ryan's character in the script credited to Donald Stewart, Steven Zaillian, and John Milius (none of them newcomers to the franchise, though only Stewart had previously received credit), it's still probably fair to say that Ford's act of character creation is more involved and rewarding this time around, simply because the raw materials he's working with are better.

As before, the chronological and causal links between movies are left vague: based on the ages of the Ryans' children, two years since Patriot Games seems about right, which has been enough time for Jack Ryan to comfortably re-entrench himself as a high-level analyst for the CIA. He's called upon to take a look into a particularly sensitive murder onboard a yacht: a personal friend of the U.S. President Bennett (Donald Moffat) and his entire family were killed because of his entanglements with a Colombian drug cartel. And barely has Ryan had time to offer his report, than his friend and boss, Admiral Greer (James Earl Jones), is compelled to take a leave of absence while battling pancreatic cancer. His hand-chosen temporary replacement is Ryan himself, who thus finds himself right in the middle of the CIA's own anti-drug operations. This puts him at odds with the covert operation being run by the president's national security advisor, James Cutter (Harris Yulin) to fight the cartels and specifically to avenge the American family's murder - the president having referred to the drugs as a clear and present danger to U.S. security, basically a code word for "break the law, suspend rights, do whatever damn thing to make sure we win".

The result of this cloak-and-dagger sneaking about is a dense snarl of plot threads married to an unwavering sense of cynicism: the dramatis personae is made up of almost nothing but terrible people on both sides of an unwinnable conflict, with U.S. bureaucrats like Cutter and his lackey, CIA director Robert Ritter (Henry Czerny) treated with the same level of restrained contempt as the coldblooded drug lord Ernesto Escobedo (Miguel Sandoval), who had the president's family killed in the first place. And caught up in everything is Ryan, a surprisingly effective Everyman in a story about how one decent guy just trying to figure things out and make them better can be betrayed and played for a fool so completely that it's not until halfway through the movie that he even realises that he's being used as a patsy. This being a crowd-pleasing thriller, it's of course not much of a surprise or a spoiler to note that, in the end, Ryan triumphs and the bad people are mostly punished, if not to the degree we might like, but it's only after a lot of muddy political nastiness and pointless violence have transpired that this occurs.

The further result of all this is that Clear and Present Danger returns squarely to the territory worked by The Hunt for Red October, and somewhat abandoned in Patriot Games's more heated action/revenge framework: it's a film about spying as the act of shuffling around top-secret paperwork and using the skills of a data processor and file clerk to uncover damning secrets. It says everything that the film's best, tensest, and most original scene (original, that is, by 1994 standards; it is hilariously dated two decades on) is a race between Ryan and Ritter on two computers on a shared network, the one man desperately trying to download files while the other works just as hard to get them deleted. For all that it subscribes to the trappings of late-'80s and early-'90s action cinema (the golden era for "spies versus Colombian drug lords" stories), and boasts a terrific setpiece in the form of a mid-film assassination, Clear and Present Danger is talky and convoluted, and if it is not necessarily as much a celebration of people who think for a living as Red October, it's still very much a plot driven by procedure and analysis, not guns and explosions, albeit that guns and explosions are still to be found.

In the director's seat, Phillip Noyce has a much easier time getting a handle on the more muted tone of this film than he ever did in Patriot Games, and if it's still more like high-end hackwork than anything John McTiernan brought to the table (though that computer scene is pretty fantastic all told), it's really high-end hackwork. The aesthetic is at least a bit more interesting - Noyce and cinematographer Donald M. McAlpine take great advantage of the streets of Bogotá in some handsome wide shots, and the whole thing is generally a bit slower than the last film, which helps it land harder. It still suffers from virtually nobody being up to Ford's level as an actor, save for Willem Dafoe in a much too small role as the head of the U.S. strike strike team in Colombia, and from a dreadfully anonymous James Horner score that, with the benefit of hindsight, sounds like the weak practice run for his infinitely superior but eerily similar (down to some very small details) Apollo 13 score from the following year. But on the whole, it moves fast for something so convoluted and talky, and its "pox on both your houses" cynicism helps it keep free from the general problem of most War on Drugs thrillers from that era, which is making South Americans look like the most backwards mud hut-dwellers in existence. Aye, there's a protracted bit about not drinking the water or eating the food; we can't have everything. But as nasty as Escobedo is, that nastiness doesn't seem to be a racial trait, and this puts the film out in front of many things just like it.

And, anyway, it moves, fast as hell, blazing through a hefty 141-minute running time that spends an awful lot of time clarifying things for the characters that we in the audience should have already figured out, without ever feeling like it's being draggy or repetitive. It is not as smart as Red October, and thus not as engaging. But it still manages to copy that film's very best trick of making the grubby office work of spying seem tense and nervewracking and giddily popcorn-cinematic and the biggest single problem I have with the film is that it never begat a third project for Ford to play Ryan, the last great role of his career as a blockbuster star.

Reviews in this series
The Hunt for Red October (McTiernan, 1990)
Patriot Games (Noyce, 1992)
Clear and Present Danger (Noyce, 1994)
The Sum of All Fears (Robinson, 2002)
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Branagh, 2014)

2 comments:

mpjedi2 said...

I've always been amused how Clancy made Jack Ryan president, and then Ford did AIR FORCE ONE (which is a ridiculous film, in all the right ways as far as I'm concerned, and I count President Marshall as his last great blockbuster role, myself). I can't help but see the connective tissue in the characters.

TheConciseStatement said...

I wish we saw more of Henry Czerny. He's so good at that slimy, relentless prick role, and is absolutely the best thing about Mission : Impossible.

"Everyone has pressure points, Barnes. You find something that's personally important to him and you squeeze."

In fact, I think he turns up for two seconds at the end of that dull A-Team movie and instantly oozes prickitude.