Patriot Games

Patriot Games. Paramount Pictures 1992.
Patriot Games. Paramount Pictures 1992.

Before watching the movie:

Terror plot, Harrison Ford, action, that sort of thing. I expect it to be exciting. I’m looking forward to it, but not in ways that seem to be able to fill a page.

I should probably be comparing this to The Hunt for Red October, but I didn’t even remember that Jack Ryan in that film was Alec Baldwin (I was remembering Martin Sheen for some reason).

After watching the movie:

While vacationing in London, ex-CIA analyst Jack Ryan happens to be in the right place at the right time to foil an assassination attempt on the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, apprehending Irish terrorist Sean Miller and killing his brother. Shortly after returning home, Ryan’s old CIA bosses inform him that Miller escaped custody and might be looking for revenge, but even if not, they’d like Ryan to come back, possibly to help them track down the IRA-linked terrorists. Ryan initially refuses, but when Miller sends an assassin after him and tries to kill Ryan’s pregnant wife and daughter (leaving them for dead in a highway wreck), Ryan will sign up for anything that will keep his family safe.

I may not have felt so at the time, but a large part of what I remember about “Red October” was the high-tech focus. For a while, this movie felt like it was trying to emulate that, but it seemed tacked-on. At the CIA offices, they use state of the art equipment to reconnoiter possible locations for the IRA splinter’s North African training camp, which is now painfully clunky and dated. (Despite my fervent wishes, Ryan did ask for the image to be magically enhanced, but at least it was still too blurry to be very useful.) Later, in an even further-removed scene, Ryan and his superiors tensely watch a satellite feed of the assault on the camp from a mission control room. This scene felt pointless, because the characters were so far removed from the action and even though they thought the successful battle meant it was over, I knew it couldn’t be because that’s not how movies work.

Ford’s Jack Ryan doesn’t feel like an analyst. That’s not to say his acting in the offices of the CIA isn’t believable, just that he isn’t. This take on the character can handle office work fine, but seems more like a field operative, with the competence he displays in the action sequences. The point of the character as I understood him was that he’s a desk worker not cut out for the excitement he finds himself caught up in, but Ford is at home there. Only the plot itself is more comfortable with the action than he is.

It’s even refreshing in an unfortunate way to see an American movie draw on the politics of Northern Ireland for its conflict instead of Eastern Europe (Scary Commies), the Middle East (Scary Muslims), or Asia (Scary… Asians?). Often, especially in modern times, the idea of terrorism being perpetrated by Westerners is presented as a subversion of expectations, but here it’s just the threat du jour. There isn’t even a major political threat aimed at American interests, just on one American who got tied up in a United Kingdom matter because he was on vacation. (That seems to be a glimmer of the idea of Ryan not belonging in the excitement, but it comes across more as justifying American involvement in everything.)

The fact that the conflict over Northern Ireland’s political allegiance is still coming to violence makes less sense to me than the enduring Israeli-Palestinian tension,  even after doing some cursory research, but sense or no, it’s real, and this is not the place for me to discuss political matters I don’t really know about. Sometimes the world doesn’t make sense, and that tension makes for good story fodder.

While the reasons I can find for Tom Clancy’s disowning of this movie don’t seem like a very big deal (downgrading the target’s status in the royal family, killing the villain), I do think I would have liked this story more if I hadn’t come to it with expectations of Jack Ryan’s character.

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