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Clear and Present Danger Review

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by Casimir Harlow Nov 15, 2011 at 2:07 PM

    Clear and Present Danger Review

    Reaching another high point in my retrospective look at the quartet of Tom Clancy / Jack Ryan film adaptations, following on from the excellent first entry, The Hunt For Red October, and the solid introduction to Harrison Ford’s take on the character of CIA analyst Jack Ryan in Patriot Games, I now turn to the third film in the series, and – notwithstanding the confusing attempts at continuity between the others – the only official sequel, Clear and Present Danger.

    Whilst Red October was an undoubtedly great movie, it was arguably not a great Jack Ryan vehicle (or at least not a great introduction to the leading character); and whilst Patriot Games was a great introduction to Jack Ryan, and to Harrison Ford’s version of him, it was not a great movie, merely a reasonably good one. But with Harrison Ford returning to the role just two years later, he had the perfect chance to consolidate his position as Jack Ryan and do the character and the stories justice, which is pretty much what was achieved.

    “You want to know about politics in Washington? Four words: watch your back, Jack.”

    When his boss, Vice Admiral James Greer is diagnosed with cancer, Jack Ryan finds himself taking the role of acting Deputy Director of Intelligence at the CIA. His latest assignment involves the murders of an American businessman and his entire family – a man who was a close personal friend of the President himself. When the President learns that the deaths may have been at the hands of a drugs cartel running out of Columbia, he gives the unofficial go-ahead to National Security Advisor James Cutter to “take the gloves off” on the drug barons, who, in turn, instructs the Deputy Director of Operations at the CIA to conduct off-the-books precision military strikes in Columbia, and to keep Ryan, as Deputy Director of Intelligence, out of the loop. When the missions provoke retaliation from the cartel, however, Ryan finds himself caught in the crossfire, and promptly goes looking for answers, distinctly aware of the fact that he may not like what he finds.

    Clear and Present Danger was the first Tom Clancy book that I ever read, a daunting beast of a book which has a Count of Monte Cristo-style complexity with its intricate weaving of multiple story arcs. As a pre-teenage boy it certainly tested my resolve and attention span, but it was the Jane’s Guide level of detail with regards to military technology that always amazed me, Clancy dedicating whole chapters to operations which would be summed up in the movie by little more than a single word on a computer screen. After director Phillip Noyce’s adaptation of Patriot Games stripped most of the complex political machinations and intriguing subplots out of that novel, in order to make it just a simple, streamlined, glorified revenge thriller, I wondered what would become of Clear and Present Danger, an even more densely plotted book. It was – and is – probably my favourite Clancy novel (and the most successful chapter in the Ryan universe), so I shuddered at the thought of what they would do to the satisfying, elaborate, grand-scale source material to make it a suitable mainstream Harrison Ford vehicle.

    Removing many of the background stories, supporting characters, and even a couple of explosive events, the film could have easily been just an empty shell, a mere shadow of the book’s greatness; but somehow, through a combination of Ford’s embodiment of the lead character, some choice supporting players, Noyce’s expert management of both dialogue-driven confrontations and tense action sequences across multiple locations, and a careful selection of just enough core plot strands to interweave and crescendo into a satisfying narrative, Clear and Present Danger manages to rise above mediocrity and become one of the only two distinctly superior Clancy adaptations. And whilst it may not quite match Red October’s excellent climax, it is a much more easily defined Jack Ryan outing.

    “Are you suggesting a course of action, sir?”
    “The course of action I’d suggest is a course of action that I can’t suggest.”

    After Patriot Games established Harrison Ford as a worthy contender for a bankable alternative to Bond (who was still on hiatus, now 5 years after Licence to Kill, with Brosnan’s back-with-a-band debut in Goldeneye still over a year away), Clear and Present Danger allowed the character to further develop on its solid foundation, expanding on the scale of his exploits, but still staying true to the spirit of the role. Ford was destined to play this role, bringing his trademark everyman hero persona to bear, and perfectly epitomising the modern-day boy-scout element of the part. Indeed it’s a testament to his strength in the role that he could make Ryan into a veritable thinking man’s action hero without ever having to pick up a gun across the entire two-and-a-half-hour narrative.

    Supporting him we had returning actor James Earl Jones (recently superb as a guest-star dictator in House), reprising his part as Admiral Greer, an important character – boss, mentor and friend to Ryan – who has now been stricken by cancer, and promotes Ryan to replace him as (acting) Deputy Director of Intelligence at the CIA, at least while he is recovering. Jones has brought great gravitas to the part across all three films; having some of the best lines, and delivering them with warmth, power and presence; and he gets a further chance to shine here on the dramatic front, as we get to see the previously seemingly unstoppable Greer totally racked and ruined with disease. Some of the best scenes across all of the movies have involved the smart, telling exchange of words between these two friends, and Ford also gets the chance to explore the more emotional, decimated side to his character as he watches his mentor get slowly eaten away.

    Anne Archer’s character of the loyal wife Cathy Ryan, would unfortunately be one of the victims of the limited running time and arguably necessary cuts, her part reduced to little more than a glorified cameo, a shame when you consider how well she worked in the first movie as a far more prominent player, the relationship between her and Ryan feeling really quite refreshingly genuine. Yet there simply was not enough room for all the people you would have liked in this movie, particularly when you consider how many big new players – on both sides – that this film sought to bring to life.

    Far from just another caricature gang leader, Miguel Sandoval (Get Shorty, Blow) makes for a solid cartel boss: a proud, headstrong crime lord who is guided by Joaquim de Almeida’s (24, Fast Five) Machiavellian consigliere, Cortez. More time is spent establishing these enemies, and it pays dividends when it comes to tying all the threads together.

    “These drug cartels represent a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States.”

    Similarly, how many times have you come across corrupt Government heavyweights in movies and felt that they were just clichéd and predictably evil? Clancy’s original novel would weave themes of political corruption undeniably analogous to both the Nixon-Watergate affair and the Iran-Contra fiasco, and it’s only thanks to the great trio of character actors that all the sneaky key players are brought to life on the Big Screen as convincing, potentially real-life entities.

    Donald Moffat (The Thing) would blend Reagan ignorance with W. Bush’s posturing; Harris Yulin (Scarface) would do his black-ops bidding as Cutter, the National Security Advisor; and Mission: Impossible’s Henry Czerny would be the most clear-cut weasel, as Ritter, Deputy Director of Operations at the CIA, getting some of the better antagonist moments – most notably an early-days computer warfare sequence which is one of the two most memorable scenes in the entire movie: where he and Ford’s Ryan battle it out across the network, as Ryan desperately tries to obtain the documents that Ritter is systematically erasing. One of the most obvious improvements over the novel (where Ryan would instead just break into Ritter’s safe), the scene would only work because of how the characters had been established so well across the narrative.

    Director Phillip Noyce also acquits himself well, capitalising on the most successful elements of his first outing with Ford and Clancy’s Ryan, Patriot Games, whilst having a grander budget to play with that afforded him grander locations and bigger set-pieces. He also stays truer to Clancy’s original novel; sure we don’t have half the operations conducted, nor anywhere near the amount of detail that went into establishing all of the different interconnecting threads, but the spirit of the book is there (unlike in Patriot Games), and, as intelligent action-thrillers go, this one stays just the right side of over-complicated, whilst also giving you more than enough political machinations and supporting sup-plots to keep you thoroughly engaged.

    “Let me make this very clear: this is your deal, not mine, so unless I have written authorisation, this whole thing is over before it starts because I’m not going to be the only one left without a chair when the music stops.”

    His command of the bigger set-pieces was also commendable; the movie’s first action scene arguably does not come until almost halfway through the movie, and yet it is totally worth the wait, a sequence that remains not only the high point of the movie (in action terms) but also one of the greatest defining ambush scenes committed to film: four Chevrolet Suburbans, one barricaded South-American street, and a few dozen hired mercenaries firing from the rooftops with RPGs. Apparently it’s still used to this day as a training video for US government agencies.

    Striking the perfect balance between action-adventure, political machinations, high-level corruption, tactical intelligence and genuine human factor, Clear and Present Danger was not without its flaws, unfortunately. Although ‘composer’ James Horner would replicate much of his Patriot Games material for this sequel (of course, its Irish lilt replaced with trademark pan pipes – the go-to sounds for South American drug dealers), throwing in elements from Red Heat, 48 Hours, and Aliens, and anything else he ripped off, for the most part it works quite well, particularly in the more thrilling sequences. On the other hand, the closing action sequence would not fare as well, standing out as thoroughly anticlimactic, particularly when juxtaposed with the excellent set-piece midway through the film. In the novels, both the rescue operations and final raid were more spectacular; even Noyce himself would go on to say that he was disappointed with the end result, and disappointed that he did not manage to top the stunning mid-film ambush in either scale or significance.

    Even though I did not mind the changes made to the final closing face-off with the President – the book had things go down in a very different, far more cynical/realistic way – I did think that the preceding action-climax was disappointing, and a part of this, beyond the Director’s lack of resolve (or cash?) to make a grandstanding epic climax, was also to do with the casting of a certain Mr Willem Dafoe. Fans of the books, somewhat understandably, would balk at the underrated actor – from Live and Die in LA, The Last Temptation of Christ and Born on the Fourth of July; as well as Spiderman and Speed 2: Cruise Control (!) – taking arguably the second most important role in the entire Clancy franchise.

    Ex-Navy Seal-turned-special ops contractor for the CIA John Clark (as well as his protégé, sniper Chavez) makes his all-important introduction in both the novel, and also here in the movie adaptation of Clear and Present Danger; some might regard him as the action flipside to Ryan’s analyst coin – Clark would go on to become Ryan’s ‘weapon-of-choice’ from this tale forth – and the character himself has gone on to be the star of several spin-off books and video games (he’s head of the Rainbox Six group). The trouble is that Dafoe did not naturally come to mind when envisaging a hard-nosed black ops veteran – a little too eccentric, even his seminal performance in Platoon did not display the stuff required to bring John Clark to life. Whilst his scenes with Ford work quite well, and he does not look wholly out of place in the part, I think a stronger, tougher presence could have given the film a bit more impact, particularly in the tail-end action department.

    “How dare you come into this office and bark at me like some junkyard dog! I am the President of the United States!”

    Still, these really are comparatively small niggles – elements which don’t ruin the production, but merely take it down a sliver below the greatness of Red October – and there is far more good to outweigh the bad. After all, in this film Ford became the defining Jack Ryan actor (although that statement should be qualified with the fact that Baldwin was, for one reason or another, never given the opportunity to reprise his role from Red October, and therefore we will never know how he may have turned out years down the line), and indeed it was to be the second of three Clancy adaptations that the actor had signed up for. One can only imagine how a third film might have worked out – apparently Ford read the original script for the next chronological book, and next intended film, The Sum of All Fears and did not like it, so opted out of the role – and what a great shame, not just for Clancy fans, but also for Ford himself: his career would go on the decline soon afterwards, and the script for Sum of All Fears would be stripped and re-written for a younger actor, marking the second reboot for the franchise and arguably the biggest nail in its coffin.

    Somewhat ironically Jack Ryan, the character, would go on to become the President in Tom Clancy’s Ryan-centric universe, in the novel Debt of Honor, whilst Ford, retiring from the role, would go on to play a Ryan-ish action-President in Wolfgang Petersen’s 1997 thriller Air Force One. It may well be the closest that we’re ever going to get to seeing Ford reprise the role, although, that said, as recently as 2009 (after the fourth Indy film) he expressed interest in returning to the role, and – if he actually was serious about wanting to – there really is no reason to stop him: the character is not defined by age, his actions more dictated by intellect than strength, and indeed he goes on to get higher and higher up the food chain as he gets older. Personally, I’d love to see Ford pick up the role not all that far down the line from where he left off, with his character perhaps finally retiring from intelligence and moving into politics (as was the course of the character in the stories), erasing the botched interpretation of Sum of All Fears in the process. Alas, it will likely never be, and Clear and Present Danger will remain one of the better Tom Clancy adaptations, with Harrison Ford’s portrayal probably destined to forever be the unequivocal best film version of the spy character Jack Ryan. After all, what other actor could you imagine coming across as convincing in a verbal stand-off with the President of the United States?

    “How dare you, sir!”