Patriot Games were trying to be ironic - actually, that's not the half of it: a film more free of pesky things like nuance and cleverness than Patriot Games is damn hard to imagine - and yet the title ends up playing that way regardless. The two men who end up driving the conflict from either side, ex-CIA analyst-turned-professor Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) and Irish independence fringe group radical Sean Miller (Sean Bean), are both specifically not acting according to patriotism, but from reasons that have everything to do with straight up "you fuck with my family, and I will fuck with you" revenge-seeking. Thus is it is that the first American movies to depict IRA terrorist activities in the late 20th Century ends up using the Troubles almost exclusively as a backdrop for an entirely straightforward action thriller. One would perhaps expect something a little more politically engaged from a story with "patriot" in the title, but it's probably just as well - in the story as it currently exists (in which form it was disowned by source novelist Tom Clancy), Miller is solely there to provide an easily hissable villain, and the further the filmmakers could go to avoid having that be a statement on a very active real-world controversy at the time, the better for all involved.
It is, perhaps, the defining characteristic of Patriot Games that it is a deliberately safe, all-things-to-all-people exercise, if that can possible be said of an R-rated sequel to a PG-rated original (I suspect that in the 2010s, it might have squeaked through with a PG-13). It is a good film, and in Ford's Ryan, it introduces one of the greatest action heroes of 1990s cinema. But it's also a rather weak-kneed sequel to The Hunt for Red October, a far less conventional sort of spy thriller, in which talking, analysing, and conjecturing are the meat and potatoes of spying, and fighting with guns is barely even a fact. Patriot Games takes one solid step towards more typical action shenanigans, not least by replacing the slender, pale Alec Baldwin with Indiana Jones as Ryan (a shift made partially for scheduling reasons, and partially because Ford - who'd passed on the secondary, passive version of the character in Red October - was interested in playing the part, and bless, him, but at his all-time peak, Baldwin wasn't a quarter the box office draw that Ford was in the early 1990s).
This was probably inevitable not just for marketing reasons, but for aesthetic ones as well: just as definitive as the shift from Baldwin to Ford was the change in the director's chair, from John McTiernan to Phillip Noyce, an Australian thriller director making his big Hollywood breakthrough here. Noyce is a fine director, but nothing that I can name of his has the same knack for wringing tension out of the most banal moments that McTiernan had in Red October: the just-so use of camera movements, sound mixing, and editing to ramp up the tension in scenes that consist of literally nothing but talking and pointing at documents is part of the reason Red October could get away with being a thriller about CIA paper jockeys. Patriot Games is a finely-made piece of machinery, but it's more pedestrian in every regard, with the only scenes where Noyce seems to be more interested in guiding the material than merely shepherding it coming at the very beginning - in the form of a surprise gun battle in which Ryan finds himself stopping a terrorist attack by killing one a teenage terrorists, a swift, chaotic, and brutal sequence that relies on suddenness and shock - and at the very end - in a somewhat overwrought final fight sequence that nonetheless finds a kind of grandiosity through madcap editing and low lighting which makes it confusing in the right ways to be intense.
Everything else is high-quality work-for-hire, and to be absolutely fair, Noyce is entirely up to the demands of making a by-the-books thriller. The moments that need to surprise us (most especially a sex scene-turned-assassination) are surprising; the moments that need to freak us out (a cat-and-mouse hunt through a building with the power turned off) are freaky. In every possible way, Patriot Games is a mechanically satisfying thriller, and its sole flaw as a genre film is that it comes directly after a film that was so eager to push beyond that. The fact that James Earl Jones, as a CIA higher-up, is the only actor to reappear from Red October even helps to obliterate the fact that this even is a sequel; there is nothing about the narrative of either film that demands knowledge of the other.
Anyway, what Patriot Games has, above all else, that excuses all the differences from its predecessor and sets it apart from the bulk of literary-politico thrillers of the 1990s (and there were many, as much as that sounds like a bunch of qualifiers), is Harrison Ford. The man who played Han Solo and Indiana Jones has too storied a career to call Jack Ryan mk. 2 one of his most legendary roles, but I'll say this: in 1992, this was an unmatchable marriage of actor and role. The brainy academic with just enough brawn that you can believe him as a toughass fighter but not so much that you can't believe him as anything else is and was a tiny niche to fill, and Ford filled it multiple times (this was his second of three iconic action heroes with a postgraduate degree, in between Drs. Jones and Kimble), but it never gets old to watch him thinking in front of us, in a way that makes the act of thinking badass. I love Red October and I love Alec Baldwin in it, but it's Ford and Patriot Games that made Jack Ryan a top-notch action hero and not just a capable CIA nerd.
There's virtually no-one else in the cast operating at his level - Anne Archer is a blank spot as Ryan's wife, more of a notion than a character, and Bean jumps from "ideologue" to "screaming insane Ahab figure" far too quickly, in addition to having one of the shittiest Irish accents this side of Brad Pitt (in that other movie with Harrison Ford and the IRA) - but there almost doesn't need to be; Patriot Games is still ultimately a spy movie, and the spying is what matters most. Ford is an exquisitely capable movie spy, enthralling to watch even when the directing around him is simply fine and the James Horner score allegedly pumping more tension and excitement into the movie is really just derivative tosh. I suspect that with literally any other actor, this would be an entertaining and forgettable diversion that wouldn't be worth talking about, but with Ford as its anchor, Patriot Games is lively and meaningful, its Jack Ryan one of the most human action heroes of the early '90s.
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)