Judge Clark Douglas wonders if "Capture the Flag" counts as a patriot game. Guess it depends on which flag, huh?
Let the games begin.
"Bloody proud of yourself, aren't you? You stuck your nose in where it didn't belong. And now you've killed me baby brother."—Sean Miller (Sean Bean)
Facts of the Case
Former CIA Analyst Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford, Air Force One) is taking some time to enjoy life. He's taking a vacation in England with his wife (Anne Archer, Narrow Margin) and daughter (Thora Birch, Ghost World). Jack has walked away from the world of international action, but this time he walks into a dangerous incident by accident. A particularly brutal segment of the IRA is making an assassination attempt on Lord Holmes (James Fox, The Remains of the Day), a member of the royal family. Jack throws himself into the fracas, saving Lord Holmes and killing several people in the heat of the moment.
One of the dead assassins was the younger brother of a particularly powerful IRA member, the fiercely unsympathetic Sean Miller (Sean Bean, National Treasure). Miller has been arrested, but that doesn't do anyone a whole lot of good. Miller is a very intelligent and dangerous fellow, and quickly escapes from his captors. He re-directs his segment of the IRA, leading them on a mission of vengeance. Yes, he wants to take out Ryan…but more important, he wants to take out Ryan's family. The increasingly deadly situation is going to throw Jack Ryan right back into the world of the CIA, a place he had hoped to leave forever. Will he be able to help the U.S. Government track down Sean Miller before Miller tracks down the Ryan family?
After The Hunt For Red October was a success at the box office, studio executives at Paramount decided that they wanted to adapt more of the Jack Ryan novels (written by the famously thorough Tom Clancy) for the big screen. There was only one problem. Alec Baldwin, who had played Ryan in The Hunt for Red October, had no interest in returning to the series. He wanted to accept a role in a play, so the producers were forced to find a new star. They turned to the most reliable action star in the movies, Harrison Ford. When you consider that the film is about a guy who has to protect his family from terrorists, there was really no other option. Ford can do the whole "stay away from/give me back/don't you dare touch my family!" thing in his sleep.
Screenwriter W. Peter Iliff was forced to make some pretty drastic changes to his screenplay (and Clancy's novel) in order to make Patriot Games a vehicle for Ford. A character who was initially supposed to be 35 years old was now played by a man who was 50. Additionally, two elements that played a smaller role in the first film were expanded here. The first was the family element. While The Hunt For Red October made a note of the fact that Ryan was a family man, this film makes it a central element. Sixteen years later, it's still refreshing to see an intelligent guy with a middle-aged wife and young daughter in a summer blockbuster.
The second element that plays a larger role here is action. There is considerably more action in Patriot Games than there was in The Hunt For Red October (though the subsequent Clear and Present Danger would top both films in that department). However, the filmmakers were understandably hesitant to turn a CIA Analyst into a full-blown action hero. Director Philip Noyce (who is usually this good, and sometimes better) cleverly manages to find a way to put Ford into several action-packed sequences without actually making him do anything that a man Ford's age couldn't actually do. The opening assassination attempt sets this up nicely: this time, the action is finding the hero, not the other way around. Still, Clancy fans need not worry. Not all of the writer's trademark technology-driven moral dilemmas have been lost. One of the film's finest scenes is pure Clancy, a sequence in which the CIA uses a heat-sensitive "electronic battlefield" to monitor a violent raid on an IRA camp. The technology may seem dated today, but the moral weight lingering in the background of this scene keeps it relevant and fresh.
Ford's performance carries Patriot Games through good times and bad. He's immensely likable, especially during the family scenes. Of course, he handles his action sequences well enough, but you knew that. It's nice to see Ford in a part that requires more brains than brawn, and he sells it admirably. Ford and Archer have a lovely rapport, and Birch gives a nice early performance as their young daughter. There are also some spot-on supporting turns from the likes of James Earl Jones (the only actor to connect the first three Jack Ryan films), Richard Harris (Gladiator), James Fox, and Samuel L. Jackson (Jackie Brown).
The hi-def transfer of Patriot Games is hit-and-miss. Grain seems to appear and disappear from shot to shot in a manner that is occasionally distracting. There are also a few scratches that appear. However, facial detail is exceptionally strong, and the color balance is solid. Sound is pretty dynamic, with James Horner's percussion-heavy score providing some nice rumbling on the low end, and some lovely "Oirish" motifs on the high end. Dialogue and sound effects work together successfully. The extras are disappointing, with only a fluffy 25-minute featurette from 2002 appearing along with a theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though I like Patriot Games, it was not able to replicate the artistic success of The Hunt for Red October. Here, we spend too much time on plot details and too little time with the characters. There isn't much here to equal the more intimate moments Sean Connery had in The Hunt for Red October. Aside from the handful of scenes Ryan gets to share with his family, the dialogue scenes in the film always seem to push the plot forward and focus on technical details. Patriot Games does a nice job of creating a very detailed story, but I'd be willing to sacrifice a few of those details in favor of adding more character-driven scenes.
Additionally, the movie tends to be pretty uninteresting whenever it is focusing on Sean Bean or the IRA (Richard Harris' scenes are exceptions). When dealing with these elements, the film feels like it is biting off more than it can chew. You could make an entire film about the IRA group presented in this film, but trying to paint on such a broad canvas as part of an action movie subplot simply doesn't work. Bean is also the film's weak point in terms of acting. He's a pretty one-dimensional baddie whose expression and motivations never, ever change or alter in the slightest. I suppose the fact that his brother is dead is supposed to give him complexity, but Bean's emotional outbursts early in the film aren't effective enough to make us care about him.
Though Patriot Games will never be considered the best of the Jack Ryan films, it's still worth a look. Don't expect anything on the level of The Hunt for Red October, but I still find this a satisfying action/drama that is about 30% smarter than the average popcorn movie. Check it out.
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• "Patriot Games Up Close"
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