Patriot Games Review

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by Casimir Harlow Nov 14, 2011 at 7:26 AM

    Patriot Games Review

    It’s strange to think about what might have happened had the casting of Bond gone in different directions over the last 50 years. After all it was Roger Moore who was originally up for replacing Connery as Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which may have led to him commanding the next 9 films, rather than just 7; Timothy Dalton was also a contender back then, but deemed too young for the part. When Moore eventually retired, Pierce Brosnan (The World is Not Enough) was first choice as his replacement, but was unavailable to take the role, which finally went to Dalton. Things could have clearly gone a very different way at every single stage. Of course in 1989, the whole franchise would reach a standstill, and the series would take its longest hiatus; some would even wonder whether Bond would ever return. Searching for a replacement, or an alternative, filmmakers turned to other seasoned fictional characters from bestselling book series, looking to Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan – the thinking man’s spy hero, or at least the US variation, as, in the UK, we already had Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer (The Ipcress File) and John Le Carre’s George Smiley (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as veritable antidotes to the excesses of 007. Unfortunately, however, casting issues would plague the Jack Ryan series in a much more pervasive way than Bond.

    Continuing my look at the smart, thrilling – but often flawed – film adaptations from the successful book series, having already covered the first in the franchise: The Hunt for Red October, I now turn to the second chapter: Patriot Games. A prequel story adapted into a sequel film, starring a different actor to the first film – I mean, that’s just asking for trouble!

    “I'm not after your job. I'm after the man who tried to kill my family.”

    In the late-eighties Harrison Ford was approached with a view to bringing the character of Jack Ryan to life on the Big Screen, for the first time. Ford had found success with the original Star Wars trilogy, and had completed two similarly successful Indiana Jones instalments, with a third one in the works. It was time to look for another project, and since he was not exactly averse to franchise roles, why not consider signing up for the past of Jack Ryan? – after all, with several more books in the works (Clancy would complete three further novels before the end of the decade), the future looked promising. Perhaps the ideal candidate for the character of Jack Ryan: a family man, CIA analyst and reluctant hero, Ford was also perfectly suited to bring to the role the boy-scout qualities of honour, truth and justice, which worked so well for the character. But we would not find this out for some years to come.

    You see, unfortunately, the script that he was offered was that of The Hunt for Red October, based on the Clancy bestseller by the same name, and Red October, whilst being a great book, was neither a great introduction to Jack Ryan, nor a great solo lead vehicle – it was more of a two-hander, splitting the narrative between the story of a renegade Soviet sub-commander on the one side, and Ryan’s CIA analyst on the other. Indeed, you can understand why Ford turned it down: he wanted a leading role. In fact Clancy himself must have had second thoughts about this being a good starting point to the ongoing tales of Ryan, since his second Ryan book, Patriot Games, was actually a prequel, which offered readers a better introduction to the character. After Patriot Games, he would return to tell the post-Red October exploits of the character in Clear and Present Danger, having given him a more well-considered back-story, and this worked extremely well.

    Unfortunately, whilst it just about worked for the book series, it completely derailed the corresponding film adaptations which were in production. If the Studios had just waited a couple more years (indeed Patriot Games – the book – would be published before the first film, Red October, was released), then they could have started off the film franchise in the correct chronological order. But they didn’t. The film production of Red October was going full throttle at this stage, with a different cast choice for Ryan – relative newcomer Alec Baldwin – and a heavyweight counterpart to play the equally important role of the Soviet sub-commander: Sean Connery. For want of a better term, Ford missed the boat, and it certainly is interesting to play the ‘what if’ game and imagine a younger Ford playing opposite Connery in a film that would go on to be released just a year after Connery played Dr. Jones, Sr, in The Last Crusade. Still, even without Ford on-board, Red October would prove to be a massive Box Office success, and thus a sequel was inevitable.

    The trouble was: where did they go from here? The next chronological book was The Cardinal of the Kremlin, published just after Patriot Games, but it was another Cold War tale, and the Cold War was long dead by now, so the Studios were no doubt looking to take things in a different direction. The next logical step would have been to go straight to Clancy’s 1989 book Clear and Present Danger. Not only was it his most successful Ryan novel (the bestselling book of the entire eighties), but, unlike Patriot Games, it was also set after Red October; and it was post-Cold War too. We will never know whether this was on the cards for the Studios at the time, because the reality was that they could not get (or did not want, depending who you believe) the lead actor from Red October, Alec Baldwin, to reprise the role anyway. So that meant: new actor; new actor meant: new introduction to the character. Well, why not make the prequel, Patriot Games, then? Not a bad idea? No, it was not a bad idea... on paper.

    “Attention to orders. I have a presentation to make. For service above and beyond the call of duty of a tourist, or even a Marine, we recognize Professor John Patrick Ryan, with the Order of the Purple Target. And hope that he will duck next time, lest he become part of history, rather than a teacher of it.”

    Unfortunately, since Baldwin was no longer in the picture, they were looking to Ford to take up the mantle that he had arguably always been destined for, only he was now even older than he had been back when they first approached him – and that too had been for an older role as it was (in Red October). Now they were looking to make Patriot Games, the prequel introductory book, about a young Jack Ryan, and how he first joined the CIA, except they wanted a veteran older actor to play him: a forty-something Harrison Ford. It was a conflict of ideas that would undergo an ironic reversal in the latter Clancy/Jack Ryan adaptation The Sum of All Fears, where a younger actor would be forced into a much older role. And the result would be the same both times around: drastic changes would be made to the source material to suit the ages of the actors; the author would disown the ensuing film adaptation; and fans of the books would be dismayed by what the filmmakers had done to them.

    Patriot Games, the novel, introduced us to Jack Ryan, ex-marine, qualified accountant, and successful investment banker. Indeed, so successful that he effectively retires from banking to become a civilian professor of history at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. Asked to do some outside consultancy for the CIA, he writes some research papers for them, which garner the attention of Vice Admiral James Greer, Deputy Director of Intelligence at the CIA, who subsequently offers Ryan a job at the CIA, which he duly turns down. Yet, after saving the Prince and Princess of Wales from an IRA splinter cell terrorist attack in London, and subsequently facing the wrath of the surviving terrorists, Ryan agrees to join the CIA permanently, with a view to catching them.

    Patriot Games, the movie, presents us with Jack Ryan: ex-CIA analyst-turned-professor of history (at the US Naval Academy), whose efforts to prevent a kidnapping attempt on the Queen’s cousin, Lord Holmes, put him and his family under the cross-hairs of a breakaway group of the IRA. After a devastating attack on his pregnant wife and young daughter, Ryan returns to the CIA to help catch the terrorists.

    “You get him, Jack. I don't care what you have to do. Just get him.”

    As you can see, there a great similarities between the overviews of both the book and the film, and credit has to be given to the fact that the filmmakers have at least attempted to stay true to the driving force within the narrative, but closer inspection reveals a number of flaws – ones which would probably go unnoticed by the general public as a whole, but which fans of the book, and the author himself, would not be so forgiving about.

    Even for film-only fans, who had previously enjoyed the first Jack Ryan outing in The Hunt for Red October, it was difficult to tie this one in with what had gone before. Aside from some minor irregularities (mostly regarding Ryan’s children, as presented in Red October, not matching up with those in Patriot Games), it was clear that the latter was intended to be an outright sequel – Ryan was CIA in Red October, working under Admiral Greer. In Patriot Games, he would return to the CIA, to work again under Greer, and, despite the change in lead actor, the actor who plays Greer would remain the same across the movies. This is all well and good, but in terms of narrative scope, the story for Patriot Games, the movie, just isn’t as broad and significant as it was in Red October. Rather than abating a potential Third World War, at the height of the Cold War itself, Patriot Games saw Ryan involved in a much more small-scale, personal mission. This would have been fine as an introduction to the character, but as a sequel, it would lack some of the political weight that its predecessor had. Indeed, the shame of it was, that a lot of said political weight could have easily been garnered from a closer observation of the source material.

    Patriot Games, the book, carried a much broader back-story; whilst it was obviously written from a limited US perspective, taking significant liberties with regards to its commentary on the British-Irish conflict, it did at least provide more interesting, politically motivated antagonists. In the film it was understandably necessary to strip away a great deal of material in order to fit everything into a relatively short runtime, but, in doing so, we lost almost all background into the terrorists, and similarly lost much of the political backdrop. Another pivotal theme addressed in the book was Clancy’s commentary on capital punishment – essentially he shows that, due to the lack of the death penalty in the UK, the convicted terrorist (who Ryan captures after the abortive attempt at kidnapping the Royal) is improperly handled and, eventually, broken free by his allies. This was juxtaposed with the end of the book, where the terrorists’ later attack is committed on US soil – the ensuing chase ends with Ryan once more capturing the terrorist, only this time the man faces execution. In making some dramatic changes to the material, the movie version takes us in a very different route, and completely avoids this interesting topical theme (and, indeed, most of the politics), in favour of a straight-up-and-down revenge thriller, where both the protagonist and antagonist are fuelled by identical motivations, and where the climax requires a suitably action-packed pay-off to resolve the whole scenario.

    “We know he's escaped. We know it happened in Kent near the Channel. If he's left the country...The chances he'd come here, that he'd try, that he could even come here are so remote, I have trouble even saying it.”
    “And yet your first instinct was to come all the way here and tell me.”

    Needless to say the version of Patriot Games that we see today isn’t even the first cut that the filmmakers came up with – test audiences baulked at the original ending (I’m assuming it was less satisfactory: perhaps it even had the terrorist apprehended and sentenced to death as per the book?) and the cast and crew had to go back to film a new ending, involving a frantic, explosive boat-chase.

    The end result? Well, Patriot Games is a competent, entertaining entry in the Jack Ryan film series, but nothing more. With Bond on an indefinite hiatus – after Licence to Kill, a great thriller (with a very Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars-esque twist to its revenge plot), but an inappropriate Bond entry, effectively killed the series for over half a decade – it was the perfect time for Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character to take centre-stage. Yet the choice to shoot Red October first (the first book published, but not the first chronological Jack Ryan novel), and the loss of lead actor Alec Baldwin after said first instalment diluted the impact of the character in the public eye.

    Thankfully, though, Harrison Ford embodied everything required for Ryan, and certainly made the character his own, rising above the limited scope, cereal-box politics and test-audience-triggered rewrites to ground the film with his trademark, perfectly pitched, everyman hero persona. It may not have been enough to make the film an outright classic, nor even to avoid the ensuing criticisms over the fatal differences between the film and the book, nor enough to avoid comparisons with Baldwin’s Ryan – whilst not necessarily a better performance, it was a take on the character which did not fit in well with the Patriot Games version, the former being a proactive CIA analyst, the latter being a remarkably reluctant, reactive veteran – but it was still enough to give the character of Jack Ryan a chance at returning for a further film, and establish himself within a larger franchise. Indeed, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan featured in as many books as Fleming’s Bond, so the material was there, if only it could be implemented properly.

    Harrison Ford was not the only thing that they got right with this Patriot Games adaptation, but he was the most important element. The supporting cast, however, should not go unmentioned – from Anne Archer (Fatal Attraction) as Ryan’s devoted, loyal and strong wife, to a young Thora Birch (American Beauty) as their daughter, managing to stand out as one of the few child actors of note who isn’t irritating as hell; from the woefully underdeveloped central terrorist trio of Patrick Bergin (Sleeping with the Enemy), Polly Walker (Rome), and a young pre-Sharpe Sean Bean (who is the only one to stand out, enthusiastically psychotic as the terrorist blinded by revenge) to Ryan’s allies: a young Samuel L. Jackson in the similarly underdeveloped important role of his best friend Lt. Commander Robby Jackson, and James Earl Jones (Vader’s voice!) commanding the screen with every moment he has as returning character James Greer, his boss at the CIA. Saying so much with so little, it is no wonder they kept Jones on after Red October, as he really brings some serious gravitas to the productions, and would make a welcome return in the third entry. It’s a star-studded supporting cast – hell, even Richard Harris (Unforgiven) pops up for a small (but memorable) cameo as an Irish spokesperson – and, even if the terrorists suffer from a lack of fully-explained motivation, and Ryan’s colleagues mostly follow his lead, blending into the background as a result, they still all do well to further enhance the feature.

    “SAS could take out any one of these camps in under two minutes. Kill everybody there and be gone before the echo fades.”

    Beyond the acting, there are also some sparks of energy, and clever straight-from-the-book moments which liven up the piece and keep it engaging, even without the massive explosions, underdressed women or frequent fisticuffs/gunfights you’d normally expect to keep the audience awake in a film like this. Sure there’s an excellent ambush scene at the beginning, expertly staged by Noyce (who would go on to top it in Clear and Present Danger, with arguably the best ambush sequence ever committed to film), and there are a couple of tense moments peppered throughout, but the thrills come more from strategy and analysis – Ryan displaying Sherlock Holmesian traits as he hunts the terrorists – his investigations baring more of a resemblance to those of Will Graham in Manhunter than any of the Bond expeditions.

    Unfortunately, despite the solid direction, even Noyce’s efforts would be undermined by the test audience-dictated reshoots to the end. The score too would become a bone of contention, with veteran composer James Horner once again doing what he does best: ripping off both his own, and other people’s, work. I don’t think I’ve ever fully managed to forgive Horner for regurgitating the same motifs across myriad movies (Avatar = Enemy at the Gates; Red Heat = 48 Hours = Clear and Present Danger) and there’s far too much Aliens in the understandably Irish-dominanted score to Patriot Games, most notably the end theme from Aliens, which is actually a flagrant rip of a symphony by Shostakovich, a fact which Horner has never acknowledged in any of his cut-and-paste work. Still, it’s not too detrimental to the thrills and spills of the main feature itself, just a bit irritating for film fans.

    Correctly sticking to the Clancy/Ryan ethos, the film itself holds back on the outright action, and instead tries its best to focus on story and characterisation. That it does not wholly succeed, that the lightweight political framework gets overwhelmed by the more audience-friendly – but unfortunately almost more trite – revenge themes, and that the test-audiences ultimately dictated elements of the final cut which largely shunned this ethos, is almost unimportant; at the end of the day, Patriot Games remains a good introduction to Harrison Ford’s everyman hero Jack Ryan, a good precursor to the superior Clear and Present Danger (even if it is not a good sequel to Red October), and, basically, a good thriller.

    “I couldn't just stand there and watch him shoot those people right in front of me. It was... rage – pure rage.”

    The Rundown

    OUT OF
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