“The Sum of All Fears,” the fourth movie based on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series, is a disappointing resurrection of the previously great franchise. With dull and sometimes embarrassing dialogue and severe miscasting of the lead role, “Sum” is a caricature of its more subtle predecessors.
The film version of the 1991 Clancy techno-thriller novel has been made into a prequel with Ryan (who was played previously by Alec Baldwin in “The Hunt for Red October” and by Harrison Ford in “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger”) portrayed by Ben Affleck as a wet-behind-the-ears’, uninitiated C.I.A. analyst. He is a bookworm and not a trained field agent, but when the new Russian president Nemerov (on whom Ryan is an expert) takes office, Ryan is summoned by C.I.A. Chief Bill Cabot (Morgan Freeman) to act as a consultant. Apparently, the White House is concerned that Nemerov is a hard-liner who will step up aggression in Chechnya.
The real conflict begins, however, when a group of fascists buy a small nuclear device that was lost in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1973. The goal of this group of international right-wing, white supremacists and neo-Nazis is to take over the world by starting a war between the United States and Russia. As Dressler (Alan Bates), the leader of the group, says, “Hitler wasn’t crazy. He was stupid. You don’t fight Russia and the United States You make them fight each other.” After the device goes off in Baltimore (relax, if you have seen a single preview of this film, you already know this), the United States is unsure of the identity of the perpetrators, leaving the two superpowers in an uncomfortable and dangerous position. As alarmists on either side urge their leaders to attack first, Ryan, who is the only one who knows what is going on, must convince both sides not to start World War III.
The film, although it has definite style and atmosphere, lacks the heart of the previous entries in the Jack Ryan series. There are several culprits involved, including the screenwriters, but the major weak point is Affleck, who gives an unbelievable and uninspiring performance as Ryan. Perhaps if this was our first exposure to the character, we could buy the dreamy 29-year-old as the action hero-to-be, but with a legacy defined by Harrison Ford, it just doesn’t work. Whether Affleck was chosen because of the notoriously picky Clancy (who disapproved of Ford for the role from the beginning) or to try to expand the demographics of the film to include the “Tiger Beat” teenage girl population is unclear, but Affleck can’t carry the role. He’s too earnest, not enough of a smart-ass, and looks like he’s trying too hard.
One of the things that made Ford’s portrayal of Ryan (and his acting in general) so compelling was his ability to show fear and uncertainty and still be a tough guy. He’s an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances. On the other hand, Affleck, with his faux-messy, Carson Daly-esque hair (worn by every style-conscious 13 through 30-year-old male in the country) and his surprisingly flat acting, doesn’t feel like the everyman. He looks more confused than scared at critical moments. Even the excellent supporting cast, including Morgan Freeman, James Cromwell and Liev Schreiber, can’t make the characters seem credible.
Another thing that detracts from the overall realism of the film is the villain. I understand that having the villains be Middle-East terrorists as they were in the book would have some unpleasant consequences (mostly financial), but come on – Neo-Nazis? Have we really gotten to the point where the only guy who is allowed to be a villain is a racist white guy who you can feel safe and politically correct hating? Oh, wait, I’ve got an even better one: While discussing his evil plot, he could be kicking a puppy and defecating on the American flag.
“The Sum of All Fears” doesn’t have the soul of the previous films in the series. It isn’t real enough to seem like a down-to-earth thriller, but it isn’t playful enough to be a Bond-type movie. It feels more like a ripped-from-the-headlines TV movie than a gripping cinematic experience.