Looking for an angle from which to approach this film, based on the Tom Clancy novel (unread by me), it occurred to me to start by looking at its’ star, Harrison Ford. I’ve watched a lot of Ford of late, and his stardom is arguably the most debatable of any of the big ’80s stars (Cruise, Gibson, Schwartzenegger, Stallone). Financially, it’s indisputable, but do we go to his movies because of him or his characters? Box-office grosses for the “Star Wars” trilogy, “Indiana Jones,” “The Fugitive” (based on the classic TV series), and his Jack Ryan thrillers (which also includes 1994’s “Clear and Present Danger”) would suggest we go mainly for his characters and the stories. If you look at a lot of the recent grosses for his films- “Firewall,” “Hollywood Homicide,” “K-19: The Widowmaker,” “The Devil’s Own”- you can see where the debate comes from. But a closer look, and you see that doesn’t always hold true- “Air Force One,” “Witness,” and “Working Girl” were all unconnected displays of his versatility, and all were popular.
No, I think we come to his movies for his persona, which he’s cultivated since we first really took notice of him as Han Solo in the “Star Wars” films and as Indiana Jones. More than any other ’80s action star, Ford is a true everyman, with a face that looks less sculpted by the moviestar Gods than one wearing- with pride- the scars and trials of life. He’s the closest we have to an icon to rival Bogart in modern movies; he too was often a man who got in over his head, but used quick thinking to get out of any scrape.
That quality serves him well as Jack Ryan. It’s been a while since I’ve watched “The Hunt for Red October”- the 1990 film where Alec Baldwin played Ryan- but from what I understand Baldwin hews closer to Clancy’s vision for the CIA man than the man of action we see in “Patriot Games.” But Ryan isn’t the main character necessarily in “October”; in “Patriot Games” (at least the movie’s adaptation, by W. Peter Iliff and Donald Stewart) he’s front and center. That’s why Ford’s such a good choice to play the character in his two outings with director Phillip Noyce. We not only believe him being at the center of unbelievable circumstances- although “Patriot Games” seems closer to reality than most of his films- but we also believe him in the quieter, more character-driven moments, whether it’s playing Monopoly with his family or teaching a class.
“Patriot Games” starts out with the Ryan family (including his wife Cathy (Anne Archer) and daughter Sally (Thora Birch)) in England, where Jack is giving a speech while Cathy and Sally are sight-seeing. As they’re meeting up afterwards, they get caught in the crossfire of a political hit on a member of the British royal family (James Fox) by a faction group of the IRA (led by Sean Bean’s Sean Miller). After making sure his family’s safe, Jack- a civilian, and no longer a member of the CIA- steps in, saves Lord Holmes, and puts Miller behind bars, but not before putting his younger brother in a bodybag. But no sooner are the Ryan’s back in the United States than Miller is broken out of police custody by his cohorts Kevin (Patrick Bergin) and Annette (Polly Walker) and on the way for revenge.
If you’re looking for a realistic thriller about terrorism, you’re looking in the wrong place; check out Edward Zwick’s underrated “The Siege” (to be reviewed in time) for a more plausible and scarier vision of Americans dealing with terrorism. That film is provocation; “Patriot Games” is pot-boiler. And a damn fine one at that. Noyce is a smart director whose films tend to take a political slant (see “Clear and Present Danger,” “The Quiet American,” “Catch a Fire,” and the criminally-underseen “Rabbit-Proof Fence”), although Hollywood has had trouble matching him with good material (although I’ll admit a liking to “Sliver,” his update of “The Saint” and “The Bone Collector” aren’t that worthwhile). Here (and in “Danger”), he is more a hired-hand, but his political mindset leads to a more global perspective than just a man-against-a-machine (in this case, global terrorism) thriller. We see scenes with the terrorists (and IRA mouthpiece Paddy O’Neil, played by Richard Harris) that further the plot and give us insight into the characters and their situation. We see Ryan and his fellow analysts at the CIA sifting through data, making connections, and giving us insight into the inner workings of how the CIA operates.
More importantly, we see the Ryan family as a functioning unit. Yes, the action sequences- like an attack on the Ryan’s on the highway, the hit in England, and the climactic cat-and-mouse in the Ryan’s house- are staged with tension and excitement (and punctuated by James Horner’s gripping score, one of his best and most influential), but we wouldn’t care half as much if we didn’t care about the Ryan’s. And we do. Sally isn’t your typical movie kid that whines and complains- she’s a smart cookie that still behaves like a kid. Cathy may be a surgeon, but she would clearly be content playing wife and mother with her family. And Jack is a family man whose decision to get back in the game is more motivated by outside forces than a passion for the job- he initially says no. Jack’s a man who has his priority’s straight the whole way through. Yeah, that’ll get him labeled as a “boy scout” in “Clear and Present Danger,” but only to someone who doesn’t see the importance of such values will see that as an insult. For Ford’s Ryan, it’s a badge of honor to be worn proudly.
In both of these movies (and “Patriot Games” especially), he does just that.