Clear and Present Danger

The course of action I’d suggest is a course of action I can’t suggest.

The Hunt for Red October is still the gold standard for film adaptations of Tom Clancy novels, but this third installment, the second with Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, is only second by a narrow margin and widely superior to the previous Patriot Games and the subsequent Sum of All Fears.

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Jack Ryan’s mentor at the CIA, Admiral Greer (James Earl Jones) asks Jack to look into the high-seas massacre of a friend of the President (Donald Moffat), along with the man’s entire family. All that is known at first is that the two men caught on the dead man’s yacht have ties to a Colombian drug cartel. This prompts the president to make a veiled suggestion to James Cutter (Harris Yulin), his National Security Adviser, that the U.S. should have a response for this provocation.

In Columbia, the drug kingpin who ordered the murder, Ernesto Escobedo (Miguel Sandoval), is scolded for the murders by his Machiavellian chief of security, Felix Cortez (Joaquim de Almeida), who accuses his employer of thinking “with his balls instead of his head.”

Admiral Greer is hospitalized with cancer, thrusting Jack into the role of CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence and saddling Jack with the unpleasant task of informing the President that his late friend was murdered because he was laundering money for Escobedo’s cartel and skimming some of the profits.

Jack’s opposite number at the Agency, Deputy Director for Operations Bob Ritter (Henry Czerny) is carrying out Cutter’s plan to wage a clandestine war against the cartels, using a go-between named Clark (Willem Dafoe) and a team of handpicked U.S. soldiers, all while keeping the “Boy Scout” Ryan in the dark.

Clear and Present Danger works on a variety of levels. When no one is being shot at and nothing is blowing up, the plot plays out like a well-honed John Frankenheimer Cold War thriller. Unlike other action movies, the story doesn’t just serve as a flimsy excuse for a lot of noisy pyrotechnics. Rather, the action scenes serve as the consequences, good and bad, for the political actions taken by the main players.

And, when things do start blowing up, no one behaves like Superman or Rambo. The action is realistic and life-sized. Instead of an indestructible comic book hero, Jack Ryan is a CIA desk jockey out of his depth, humanizing him and making the danger, physical and political, seem real and immediate.

The film is aided by a complex moral landscape, a rich palate of good and bad characters. The drug lords are not cartoonishly evil. Felix Cortez may be cold blooded but he is also outwardly charming as he quite literally pumps a Washington secretary for information. His boss is impulsively macho and immature, rather than simply being a bad guy for the sake of the plot.

Even though the “slightly less bad” guys (Cutter and Ritter) are scheming to break the law, the audience is not totally unsympathetic toward their goals, if only because the bad guys richly deserve whatever’s coming to them and those taking the fight to them, Clark and the soldiers, are likeable and honorable, serving their country even as its political leaders sell them down the river.

Given a choice between Jack Ryan films, I’ll reach for Red October first, but I’d happily watch this one next.

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