Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman, James Cromwell, Bridget Moynahan, Liev Schreiber, Ken Jenkins, Bruce McGill, John Beasley, Philip Baker Hall, Richard Cohee, Dale Godboldo, Jamie Harrold, Alan Bates, Pragna Desai, Colm Feore, Ciarán Hinds, Ron Rifkin, Eugene Lazarev, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Kirk Taylor, Jason Antoon
Written by: Paul Attanasio, Daniel Pyne, based on the novel by Tom Clancy
Directed by: Phil Alden Robinson
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, disaster images and brief strong language
Running Time: 123
Date: 05/29/2002

The Sum of All Fears (2002)

2 Stars (out of 4)

'Sum' Nerve

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Barry Sonnenfeld's Big Trouble and Andrew Davis' Collateral Damage will forever be known as two of the movies put on hold after the Sept. 11 attacks, having been deemed inappropriate for a shocked and saddened nation. However, when the movies actually arrived earlier this year, they proved to be fairly innocuous comic book flicks. Big Trouble, it turned out, was a pretty-funny comedy. I didn't see Collateral Damage, and neither did most people. But opening today is a movie that may be spooky enough to have benefited from the postponement. If you lay awake nights worrying about when and where the terrorists are going to drop their nuclear bomb, this is not the movie for you. Phil Alden Robinson's The Sum of All Fears contains a scene of nuclear devastation so brutal, so intense, that it will quiet the biggest cynics, the biggest jokers, the biggest fools.

Remember the blast in Terminator 2? Peanuts. Small potatoes.

Unfortunately, that's about all The Sum of All Fears has going for it. And in fact, the big scene doesn't seem to affect the rest of the movie. The characters would most likely have gone through the same motions even if the bomb was not detonated. As the fourth Jack Ryan film based on a Tom Clancy novel, The Sum of All Fears is a sadly soggy affair containing the least interesting Ryan, Ben Affleck, who's forced to follow in the much more experienced, charismatic footsteps of Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October) and Harrison Ford (Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger). To make up for the age difference, The Sum of All Fears serves as a kind of origin story for Ryan -- the tale of how he went from CIA desk jockey to super agent -- even though the events in the film take place in the present day, after the events of the last three films (the first and third of which I liked, just for the record).

When the current Russian president dies in office, CIA director Bill Cabot (Morgan Freeman, wasted in a puny role) recruits Ryan, who has done a paper on the subject, to meet the new president and find out where he stands. Meanwhile a group of terrorists smuggle a bomb into the Super Bowl and detonate it in order to implicate the Russians and start a world war. The U.S. president (James Cromwell) sweats it out in the dark war room trying to figure out if he should push the button. But only Ryan knows what's really going on. He runs around, stealing trucks and making frenzied phone calls -- apparently not affected at all by the nuclear fallout. Meanwhile, Ryan has a sexy girlfriend (Bridget Moynahan) who works in a hospital and otherwise has little personality. But Liev Schreiber adds some spice to the film as a slightly burnt-out superspy named John Clark who gets all the dirty jobs, like sneaking into nuclear compounds to find out who's stolen what. As a weird saving grace, some have praised The Sum of All Fears for the way it mirrors real life at the moment. But that's just coincidence and has nothing to do with artistry.

Coincidentally, director Robinson's last movie was also a spy thriller, entitled Sneakers -- but you'd never know the same man made both films. This glob of Hollywood product has none of the ease or personality of that 1992 film. Clancy's 1991 novel spans more than 900 pages, and screenwriters Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne do an admirable job compressing it into 127 minutes in a way that doesn't tangle the many subplots. The problem is that the bare-bones story is really nothing more than a standard political-spy-action thriller. In fact, it's very similar to the Korean film Shiri which opened a few months ago and which was hugely derivative of other American thrillers. (I think we call this the "carbon copy" syndrome.) If we're going to be swept away by a thriller of this kind, we need a hero that we can depend on -- one who makes us feel safe. While Affleck is fine playing in Kevin Smith's slacker movies, his Jack Ryan doesn't have enough potency to do that. We need a little more of a safety net if we're going to eat our popcorn and seriously contemplate a nuclear blast on American soil.

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