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The Sum of All Profit Margins

 

The Sum of All Fears

Phil Alden Robinson, USA, 2002

Rating: 3.0

 

 

Posted: June 9, 2002

By Laurence Station

Jack Ryan franchise producer Mace Neufeld has spent the '90s profitably translating the career of novelist Tom Clancy's hands-on CIA analyst to the big screen. The Hunt for Red October (1990) saw Ryan's debut, with a cerebrally inclined Alec Baldwin as Ryan assisting a defecting Soviet submarine commander (played with appropriate scene-chewing bravado by Sean Connery). Harrison Ford took over the role for 1992's Patriot Games, in which Ryan tussled with an Irish terrorist. Skipping The Cardinal of the Kremlin, Neufeld then jumped to 1994's Clear and Present Danger, again with Ford handling the role of Ryan. Following the chronology of Clancy's mega-popular techno-thrillers, then, The Sum of All Fears is the next logical choice. For those keeping track at home, Debt of Honor sees Ryan sworn in as Vice President before a cataclysmic terror attack in Executive Orders plops the reluctant hero into the Oval Office. Ford, having played a physically robust Commander in Chief for 1997's Air Force One, certainly understood the redundancy of sticking with Ryan and ultimately reprising a similar role. Thus, the hunt for a new Jack Ryan was on.

The choice of Ben Affleck for Sum (and, if logic holds, the next two sequels) presents an obvious age-related problem. The Baldwin to Ford transition worked, but now the clock's been turned all the way back to a 28-year-old Ryan just starting his career in the CIA. In the 1991 book, Jack Ryan had ascended to Deputy Director of the department. The Presidency was but two thrillers away, and made logical sense in Clancy's eternal Cold War universe. With Ryan as a rookie, subsequent efforts will probably have to go for a 40-something Kennedy angle come Ryan's ascension to the top of the Beltway pyramid. (No doubt Neufeld will work out that niggling detail between now and the swearing-in ceremony.)

Sum's plot involves a downed early '70s Israeli warplane armed with a nuclear bomb. Flash forward to the present day, when the bomb is found by scavengers and sold on the black market. The buyer turns out to be billionaire/neo-Nazi Richard Dressler (Alan Bates, given very little to work with), whose primary aim is to goad the United States and Russia into all-out nuclear war. (Exactly how such a move will bring about the rise of the Fourth Reich is never made clear.) Meanwhile, the peaceable current Russian president dies and a thought-to-be-aggressive successor (well-played by Ciaran Hinds) takes his place, as tensions mount between the two superpowers. Having authored a paper on the newly elected President Nemerov, Ryan is tapped to help CIA vet William Cabot (comfortably handled by Morgan Freeman) to clue the agency in on the new leader's mindset. It's Ryan's near uncanny insight into Nemerov's moral character that proves crucial during the film's protracted climax, as U.S. President Fowler (a stately James Cromwell) and his Russian counterpart play the old who'll-blink-first game of political brinksmanship, while the world teeters on the edge of apocalyptic peril. Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams) directs with a sure hand, but ultimately Sum is structurally flawed, as evidenced by a cataclysmic event midway through the action (and given full, impact-killing exposure in the previews); the remaining third simply can't sustain the weight of what has gone before.

Affleck holds his own as Ryan, but is reduced by film's end to fighting a Nazi thug down by the darkened docks while girlfriend (and future wife) Dr. Cathy Muller (an intelligent, likeable Bridget Moynahan) is stuck with little more to do than pine for a never-there Ryan and look supportive. But the film's best scenes involve Clancy's other hero, ex-Navy SEAL John Clark (an excellent Liev Schreiber) skulking around and sniffing out the terrorist plot. In contrast, the neo-Nazis are one-dimensional cartoons, which critically lessens the tense sense of real-world geopolitical warfare the film strives so hard to conjure. And that proves Sum's ultimate undoing. If more time had been spent fleshing out the pathos that drives Dressler to his ultimate goal (aside from sheer blind hatred for the two countries that broke and then divided the beloved Fatherland and a one-line reference to his father being executed during the Nuremberg Trials), Sum might have added up to more than a few interesting but ill-fitting parts.

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