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The Sum of All Fears

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Release: 2002, Paramount
Starring: Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman, James Cromwell, Liev Schreiber
Director: Phil Alden Robinson
MPAA Rating: [PG-13] violence, disaster images, and brief strong language
Genre: Drama/Action

27,000 Nuclear Weapons. One Is Missing...

CIA agent Jack Ryan (Affleck) must prevent the United States and Russian from going to war after a nuclear bomb is detonated on American soil.

What's Good
interesting scenario of nuclear war in America
a brief but stirring battle between the U.S. Navy and Russian jets

What's Bad
a noticeable lack of action and suspense
boring, melodramatic characters
political correctness at the expense of realism
the unnecessary transformation of Jack Ryan into a rookie

Reviewer: Andrew Manning (05/02)

Jack Ryan, the central character of Tom Clancy books-turned-movies including Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, returns for another round of international turmoil in The Sum of All Fears--and he's never been more boring. Played by Ben Affleck in this installment, the hotshot CIA agent must prevent a misunderstanding from becoming a major conflict between trigger-happy Americans and trigger-happy Russians.

Masterminding this new Cold War is a neo-fascist who believes he can conquer the planet after getting the world's superpowers to mutually annihilate each other in an atomic armageddon. After procuring a nuclear bomb from "the black market," he detonates it on the east coast of the United States and gets Russia to take the blame. Then he sits back and all but twirls his fiendish mustache as an enraged U.S. retaliates and the tension rises.

One would expect a lot of military action in a movie like this, what with a nuclear bomb being detonated on American soil and all. But the chaos and action are surprisingly low-key. While the actual triggering of the nuke is cool, and a subsequent battle between Russian jets and the U.S. Navy is even cooler, the aftermath of the explosion is almost non-existent. The movie never really dwells on the consequences of the attack for everyday Americans, and Jack Ryan explains away the significance of the event by saying that the blast radius of the bomb wasn't very large. The situation is downplayed so much that it just about kills what little realism the film had going for it. Even in the wake of September 11, this plot is nothing more than Hollywood entertainment. No aspiring world dominator would be dumb enough to blanket the globe with nuclear radiation. Terrorists bent on mass destruction, maybe, but an intelligent neo-fascist who wants something to rule when all of it is over? I don't think so...

The bulk of the movie focuses on political conspiracies, with Jack Ryan running around the world and digging up information for the President. Ultimately, the story culminates into a stand-off resolved with words, not weapons--thus dashing the hopes of anyone who expected a decent show of force.

The cast is decidedly mixed. Morgan Freeman and Liev Schreiber deliver the best performances and most interesting characters as a CIA director and a CIA operative, respectively, but everyone else is a one-dimensional caricature. James Cromwell is a credible but uninspired President, and his advisors are generic Old White Men in Suits played by Ron Rifkin, Philip Baker Hall, and Bruce McGill. Bridget Moynahan sports good looks, but gets no chance to show any personality as Jack Ryan's girlfriend (a weak subplot that tries to set up Ryan as a family man). And Alan Bates is the type of melodramatic villain that swirls a glass of brandy in one hand while petting a white Persian cat with the other.

Then there's Ben Affleck, who brings considerably less dramatic presence to the role of Jack Ryan than the guy who made the character famous, Harrison Ford. Affleck has a lot of strengths as an actor (his comedic skills being the most underappreciated), but between this film and Pearl Harbor, I wouldn't count action hero among them. His depiction of Ryan as young, inexperienced, and naive isn't particularly gripping, especially since we've seen the character as a rugged, determined, and strong-willed figure in previous movies. Making things even more childish is Ryan's little group of Scooby-Doo-ish investigators who help him solve mysteries.

A glaring lack of continuity doesn't help either. The events of The Sum of All Fears places it chronologically after Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, but Jack Ryan has inexplicably been turned into a young, single guy just beginning his CIA career. It doesn't even make sense to call this movie a prequel, despite what the fanboys and hack entertainment outlets have been buzzing about. Had the filmmakers not revamped the character so drastically, we could have just chalked up the transformation to actors passing along the torch a la James Bond. But the way things are presented here make it confusing for attentive movie-goers who like things to make the slightest bit of sense.

There are many people who praise The Sum of All Fears as a timely commentary on modern conflict in the world. But unless we're having a lot of neo-fascist problems I'm not aware of (which might be true, since I've been too preoccupied by Middle Eastern terrorists plowing planes into our national landmarks), this is a politically correct war film of the Information Age--one that is whitewashed, predictable, and just a little too boring.

Rating: 3.5 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)

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