FORD'S NON-PERFORMANCE VEHICLE

Not having read the books, I can't say if the film versions of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan novels have been faithful. Based on the content of the movies, I can see no evidence that unfaithfulness would constitute a crime against world literature. This was especially true of The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games, boyish yarns in which Ryan, a purehearted CIA policy wonk, gets caught up in international derring-do and has to rise to the occasion. Red October involved Ryan in the defection of a Soviet submarine commander, while Patriot Games made him the target of an improbable IRA vendetta. Clancy may have gotten the technical details pretty close to right, but the plots still felt speculative and idle. Not so that of Clear and Present Danger, which puts Jack in the middle of covert U.S. monkeyshines against South American drug cartels. Its title is no overstatement.

Red October, in which Jack was played by Alec Baldwin, was given a fairly colorful screen treatment by director John McTiernan, but Patriot Games was dishwater dull. In part, this was because of the dumb plot, but in larger part, it was because of the plodding dreariness of director Phillip Noyce, and the sluggish star performance of Harrison Ford, who might almost have been playing Forrest Gump, sans native wit. Well, Noyce and Ford are back for the film of Clear and Present Danger. The result is still sort of dull, but not offensively dull. It's much better than Patriot Games--the plot is well-structured and reasonably convincing. Jack comes to realize that he's been made the fall guy for the dull-witted prez (Donald Moffat), the stupidly reckless national security adviser (Harris Yulin) and a CIA operations director (Henry Czerny) who is sinister without apparent motive. At least the plot's convincing until the final third, when the bad guys all start conveniently behaving like idiots. Noyce handles some sequences, like the buildup to an assassination in the streets of BogotĀ , with tension. The script, by Donald Stewart, Steven Zaillian and John Milius, does a professional if not thrilling job of interweaving the various strands of action, and some of the minor characters are drolly played. The villain is a sly cartel bigwig played by Joaquim de Almeida, who's a Latin version of Ford's character (though he actually looks more like a Latin Phil Hartman), and who is paralleled with Ryan in other ways. He's so dashing that he upstages Ford like crazy.

Ford used to be a rather exciting actor--he had a loose, witty kind of pop intensity in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, and even in Witness, and his performance in The Mosquito Coast was smashing and neglected. But his acting has curdled in the last few years, as if somebody had whacked him over the head with a hammer. He uses three expressions in Clear and Present Danger: a buggy-eyed frown for when he's upset, a squiggly half-smile for when he's not, and an odd, slack-featured face, alarmingly reminiscent of Jimmy Swaggart's, for when he runs in slow motion. He's not nearly as big a drag, however, as the purse-lipped Anne Archer, again forced to play a Republican's fantasy of the perfect wife. One of the few pleasures, for me, of Robert Altman's Short Cuts was Archer's fine performance as the clown. Altman gave her a reprieve from her usual duties.

She's back in the fretting-little-woman mode in Clear and Present, and her scenes with Ford really call for an airsickness bag. Late in the film, the downtrodden Jack asks his wife, "Got any ideas how I can get out of this mess?" She gives him a sexy smooch and says, "Absolutely none!" in a proud tone that suggests she expects to be praised for her answer. I gather this is the sort of womanly attitude that right wingers hate and resent Hillary Rodham Clinton for lacking.

The fact that Jack can think of nothing to do to get out of his mess is a clue to the fraudulence of Clancy's premise in holding Jack up as a wishful role model. Looking at the record, such as it is, one of only two conclusions can be drawn. Either there isn't one single person of decency and honesty in the entire U.S. intelligence community, which seems unlikely, or the system is set up so that corruption and political self-interest rule the day time after frigging time, which seems likely. Maybe that's the harsh, unintentional message of Clancy's Ryan yarns--that in the covert foreign policy of the U.S., honesty and decency are irrelevant.

 
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