The Sum of All Fears
Warning: This review discusses the plot. You must have gamma clearance to proceed.
The late Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst and bespoiler of terrorist threats to America, Jack Ryan, has never been the easiest character to insert into a Hollywood thriller. Part of the reason is that unlike say, James Bond, Ryan isn’t out on his own foiling plots, he’s part of the intelligence apparatus – a fact finder, a problem solver, an enabler – not strictly speaking the all action hero who saves the world snapping necks and dispatching terrorists with pithy one liners.
Hollywood’s first attempt, The Hunt for Red October, rightly had Ryan as a secondary character – the quote unquote hero, but not front and centre. The next two entries, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, had Ryan, now Harrison Ford, fronting each movie, but these tales, adapted from Clancy’s novels, had to accept that Ryan was more a brain and a reluctant hero, rather than a traditional lynchpin: a man caught in a geopolitical web through no fault of his own. Audiences responded with warm applause rather a standing ovation so attempt number four, The Sum of All Fears, rebooted Ryan as a younger, more dynamic participant in the narrative, in the hope he’d be able to get his hands a little dirtier. Unfortunately the powers that be gave him the face of Ben Affleck and sequels there were none.
The superficially well-titled, Shadow Recruit, (just don’t think about it as it implies Peter Pan’s joined the CIA) attempts to solve the problem with an original story that puts another embryonic Ryan, now Chris Pine, into something encroaching on a Bond scenario. Pine’s Ryan is a young buck studying at the LSE on 9/11. He promptly drops his textbooks and signs up for military service until, as every fan of Red October knows, he’s shot out of the sky and has to spend several months learning to walk again. At this point two things happen that could potentially upset the movie that follows. Ryan meets recruiter Kevin Costner, who we infer will be an inert presence throughout, then his future girlfriend Cathy, here incarnated as Keira Knightley affecting an American accent. Neither Ryan nor we can know it at this point, but Costner’s role will turn out to be benign whereas Knightley’s will erode audience goodwill to the point where some, when they think no one’s looking, will give a quiet cheer for director Kenneth Branagh’s Russian terrorist.
On paper this is good Clancy territory: a Russian cell plan to crash the US economy and bring on a 2nd Great Depression. But writers Adam Cozad and, duck and cover, David Koepp, have crafted a story that’s simple and perfunctory, lacking Clancy’s talent for plot and geopolitical intrigue. Worse, in an attempt to broaden the film’s audience and make Ryan’s chronological debut more appealing to imaginary feminoids who just can’t be doing with all this techy, political boy’s stuff, Knightley’s character has been given an awkward and intrusive role in the story. Somebody call somebody, she’s hijacked the entire second act!
Whereas Gates McFadden had the decency to be on screen for all of 8 seconds, leaving Ryan to get on with his job, and Anne Archer didn’t insist on accompanying Ford’s iteration to Columbia, because she was just sick of staying at home while Jack travelled the world, Cozad and Koepp contrive to have Knightley fly across the planet and join Ryan while he’s on a mission. When she finds out that he’s an intelligence agent, having first mistook his firearm for evidence he was, er, having an affair – she improbably becomes an integral part of an undercover mission borrowed from Phil Alden Robinson’s Sneakers (a mission that’s weirdly contingent on her unanticipated presence to succeed). Later she’s kidnapped in a desperate gambit to inject some jeopardy into a movie that thus far has pivoted on a dinner date. Suspicions that all concerned may be taking the piss as well as failing to understand that their audience have turned up to see Jack Ryan and not the Ryans in Russia, are confirmed when Keira spends most of the running time either gurning, flapping or yelping. Perhaps in Cozad and Keopp’s mind this corrects the gender imbalance of Red October, but it’s interesting and plausible female characters we want, not a girlfriend that’s kneaded into the plot in the hope of making an additional $500 at the box office.
All this improbable relationship tomfoolery only highlights the problem with Branagh’s thriller, namely that it’s underpowered and lacking in those elements that served Dr Ryan so well in the past, namely tension and action. You have to work hard to make a ticking bomb plot, with a view to impoverishing the United States, run of the mill, but Branagh manages it. There’s a few dynamic sequences littered throughout – a car chase here, some running there – and it’s well paced, but none of this can disguise the fact that the script lacks ambition, it’s several setpieces short of the event movie it could and should have been, and it’s just not clever enough for a story set in the universe Clancy created.
All of which is a shame because Chris Pine is likable in the title role. Had he been given more to work with and been less a prisoner of Paramount’s demographilizer, it’s possible this could have been the start of a new run for Clancy’s hero. Instead budget skimping, poor plotting and indifferent orchestration have scuppered this reboot. At least the author didn’t live to see it. If only Clive Cussler had been as lucky with Sahara.