Spy Games

First, the good news. Clear and Present Danger is much easier to take than its predecessor, Patriot Games, though history and casting keep it from reaching The Hunt for Red October's appeal. That first installment in the Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan trilogy had the almost unfair advantage of Sean Connery's presence and a villain -- the Soviet empire -- that could sustain Clancy's technological overkill.

Clancy's intellectual mastery of weapons and intelligence systems are the motor behind his books, certainly. Who thinks of them as "Jack Ryan" novels? In fact, it's only now, after the third film in the series, that I can clearly remember the lead character's name. Ask me tomorrow, however, and I'll likely call him Jack Clancy, or Jack Ford.

That's because he's not a real character at all. Jack Ryan is merely a clever idea on Tom Clancy's part. He's the everyman, and head of the every-family, whom Clancy's readers like to imagine America's techno-might exists to protect. With his harried and married suburban spy, Clancy actually anticipated the Schwarzenegger scenario of True Lies: the spy who came in from mowing the lawn.

But Schwarzenegger and James Cameron found a deep and comic irony in their character's situation. If Clancy and the makers of Clear and Present Danger find any tension between Ryan's domestic skills and his work at the CIA, they keep it to themselves. You suspect that for Clancy, Central Intelligence really is just another office, though some of the characters here do occasionally sound off on the importance and idealism of their work. At one point a group of CIA operatives are bushwhacked, and we get to see one of them do a sort of arty and dignified dance of death as he's riddled. We've seen death scenes like this ever since Bonnie and Clyde, but not one whose object was a conservatively dressed company man.

Director Phillip Noyce doesn't repeat his mistakes of Patriot Games here. In the earlier film, he took Jack Ryan's hijacking of U. S. intelligence in defense of his family at face value, and presented Ryan's severely restricted world view as a straightforwardly heroic discipline. He had met the enemy, and the enemy was the other guy, not Ryan himself, nosiree.

But the current film is almost devoid of ideology, or rather, its ideology changes from scene to scene, as Noyce goes spinning through a Rolodex full of genres. In other words, Clear and Present Danger has nothing to say -- thank God -- so we're free to admire Noyce's skill in cobbling together some 12 or 15 types of movies, and the pride and gravitas that Harrison Ford brings to playing even a character as wafer-thin as Jack Ryan.

The film's opening offering from the genre sampler is an adventure at sea. The Coast Guard apprehends a yacht manned by a pair of Colombians. Inside, they find traces of the bloody murder of the boat's owners, who were a couple of gringo wheeler-dealers who just happened to be personal friends of the president of the United States (Donald Moffat). The pres takes his friends' deaths personally, and says that the Colombian drug lords have finally gone too far. (He was elected in part on his pledge to fight and win the war on drugs, which makes this film's politics almost as dated as Cold War machinations.) Playing on the president's desire to punish his friends' killers, and on his political desire to make hay against Colombians, a pair of creepy White House advisors fast-talk him into sending a commando unit into Colombia and opening a splendid little secret war against the drug lords. Because of political intrigues too involved to explain here, Ryan becomes the dope who solemnly pledges to the Senate oversight committee that no American troops will be used in Colombia. This straight arrow never suspects that he's telling a lie the size of Oliver North's brass balls, of course.

The film's politics feel confused. Since the film has been released in the 18th month of the siege against Clinton, its nods toward presidential duplicity evoke the man from Arkansas, something you think would be in keeping with the Clancy audience's taste. But this president keeps a jar of jelly beans on his desk, and the reckless Latin American adventure scenario brings the bad old days of the mid-'80s to mind. But because his lie wasn't intentional, and because Ryan is so by-gosh determined to set things straight once he learns the truth, he in fact becomes the Anti-North. Again, is that what this film's audience wants to hear, or am I missing something?

Caught in a political muddle, the filmmakers turned to their genres. After the seagoing opener, we get the relatively new genre of the happily married spy, with Ryan and his nearly silent partner (Anne Archer). The focus then switches to the wanna-be bourgeois life of the Colombian drug lord, which evokes the Godfather's theme of gang-family-as-nearly-respectable-corporation. We then see a best-friend-dying-of-cancer movie when Ryan's boss, played by James Earl Jones, takes ill and thrusts the "boy scout" into the hot seat. This is followed by the Ollie North, government-by-deception movie, countered by Mr. Smith Goes to Washington when Ryan decides to clean up crooked Washington.

Then the movie catches up to the secret army in Colombia, becoming a post-Platoon guerrilla war movie; Willem Dafoe wanders in from a movie about a spy whose time has come and gone. His character then joins forces with Ryan and serves up five minutes or so of buddy movie. Finally, there's a mini-jailbreak movie and a short caper movie, capped by a courtroom drama. And I'm leaving out half of the movies here.

None of this makes any real-world sense, but the movie remains engaging, largely because, as Umberto Eco once wrote about the magical effect of Casablanca, its genres are packed together so tightly that they finally begin to talk to each other. Clear and Present Danger doesn't speak with anything like Casablanca's transcendence, of course. It's more of a blue-collar bull session, with one particularly odd note. The head villain here is played by Brazilian actor Joaquim de Almeida, who looks exactly like a Latin version of Saturday Night Lives Phil Hartman. I found myself laughing every time he pretended to be "sincere." That seems like a particularly apt reaction to this movie.

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