There has always been something infuriating, if not appalling, about killing thousands of people in the name of blockbuster entertainment. Before September 11, no one thought much about it. Audiences accepted wholesale slaughter on the big screen because they knew there would be some sort of payoff -- revenge, redemption, a thousand bodies for a single eye. But when life became a wide-screen horror film, for a moment filmmakers and their consumers contemplated what cinema might be like if it weren't so consumed with killing for kicks. That fleeting moment is over. Now comes The Sum of All Fears, a dizzyingly dim and silly movie in which thousands die when neo-Nazi terrorists set off a nuclear bomb during the Super Bowl. More terrifying: The only man who can stop further obliteration -- indeed, the annihilation of the entire global population -- is Ben Affleck as CIA analyst Jack Ryan. The horrors never cease.
When Affleck keeps getting work, the terrorists have won. With blank eyes and soft features, he has none of the gravitas of his predecessors, Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, who saved the world with swagger. Affleck merely looks like a frat boy in over his head, which is perhaps the point: The CIA's headquarters, crammed with computer nerds tickling keyboards while leering at surveillance-cam footage, resembles a frat house, with Ryan merely the coolest dork in the motley lot.
Yet Ryan's transformation from action hero to reaction zero is explicable. Paramount is playing the youth card, hoping to resurrect a franchise by dipping into Kevin Smith's shallow pool of talent. The studio likely figures it's better to pander to a mythical audience with loose change (the kids!) than to keep hauling out warhorses with faces creased by age and experience. Theirs is a Jack Ryan who looks ready to throw down at a kegger, not stare down a nuke. Surrounding him with older, better actors who go wasted -- Morgan Freeman as Bill Cabot, Ryan's would-be mentor; James Cromwell as an obtuse and petulant president; Philip Baker Hall as an impatient defense secretary -- does Affleck no favors. Nor does the presence of Liev Schreiber as a CIA operative whose nerve and charisma render Ryan impotent during their few scenes together. We can't take our eyes off Schreiber, and we can't keep our eyes open when Affleck's around.
Tom Clancy acolytes will surely stare at the screen in confusion, as screenwriters Paul Attanasio (responsible for far better films, among them Quiz Show and Donnie Brasco) and Daniel Pyne have gutted the 1991 novel, eliminating major characters and key plot points. The villains are no longer Arabs, and Ryan is no longer suspected of insider trading or cheating on his wife, because here he has no wife: Dr. Cathy Muller Ryan, played by Anne Archer in both 1992's Patriot Games and 1994's Clear and Present Danger, is now just Dr. Cathy Muller, Jack's girlfriend, which suggests the existence of a time warp of some kind. The Sum of All Fears takes place in the present, yet it's something of a prequel to its three predecessors, including 1990's The Hunt for Red October.
Such retooling is about as comprehensible as the plot, which, when recounted, sounds like someone talking about a dream they had three years ago. It begins in 1973, when those clumsy Israelis lose a nuke in the desert. Twenty-nine years later, it's recovered by Arabs looking for scrap metal, who then sell it to Nazis (led by Alan Bates) hatching a plan to pit the United States against Russia. The Nazis (speaking of a time warp) figure that if they can plant a nuke at the Super Bowl (where Florida's playing Chicago and "The Star-Spangled Banner" has different music and lyrics, suggesting this is an alternate universe) and pin it on the Russians, then the two superpowers will blow each other up, Fail Safe-style, leaving plenty of nuclear-winter wonderland for the Nazis to claim as Third Reich territory. It would seem Hitler's spawn do not mind such nuisances as radiation. The story alone could force you to scratch a hole in your head.
The Sum of All Fears reaches its Super Bowl climax midway through, and Ryan is reduced to a bit player from that point until the very end. Director Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams, Sneakers) wants to have it both ways: He's dying to reveal the carnage, but he's also aware that doing so would open fresh wounds in the collective consciousness. So we're given mere hints of the devastation: a tidal wave of countryside destruction (from which Ryan emerges with only scant scrapes), a few scenes in a hospital, a neighborhood on fire (and no one's terribly frightened of the nuclear fallout). We're left to fill in the blanks with fresh memories of real-life destruction, and the result is alienating. We're no longer in the movie but out of the theater, hoping life doesn't again imitate art, as base as it is.
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