There has always been something infuriating, if not appalling, about killing thousands of people in the name of blockbuster entertainment. Before September 11, no one thought much about it. Audiences accepted wholesale slaughter on the big screen because they knew there would be some sort of payoff -- revenge, redemption, a thousand bodies for a single eye. But when life became a widescreen horror film, for a moment filmmakers and their consumers contemplated what cinema might be like if it weren't so consumed with killing for kicks.
That fleeting moment is over. Now comes The Sum of All Fears, a dizzyingly dim and silly movie in which thousands die when neo-Nazi terrorists set off a nuclear bomb during the Super Bowl. More terrifying: The only man who can stop further obliteration -- indeed, the annihilation of the entire global population -- is Ben Affleck as CIA analyst Jack Ryan.
When Affleck keeps getting work, the terrorists have won. With his blank eyes and soft features, he has none of the presence of his predecessors, Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, who saved the world with swagger. Affleck merely looks like a frat boy in over his head, which is perhaps the point: The CIA's headquarters, crammed with computer nerds tickling keyboards while leering at surveillance-cam footage, resembles a frat house, with Ryan merely the coolest dork in the motley lot.
Yet Ryan's transformation from action hero to reaction zero is explicable. Paramount's playing the youth card, hoping to resurrect a franchise by dipping into Kevin Smith's shallow pool of talent. The studio likely figures it's better to pander to a mythical audience with loose change (the kids!) than to keep hauling out war horses with faces creased by age and experience. Theirs is a Jack Ryan who looks ready to throw down at a kegger, not stare down a nuke. Surrounding him with better actors who go wasted -- Morgan Freeman as Bill Cabot, Ryan's would-be mentor; James Cromwell as an obtuse and petulant president; Philip Baker Hall as an impatient defense secretary; Liev Schreiber as a CIA operative -- does Affleck no favors.
Tom Clancy acolytes will surely stare at the screen in confusion, as screenwriters Paul Attanasio (responsible for far better films, among them Quiz Show and Donnie Brasco) and Daniel Pyne have gutted the 1991 novel, eliminating major characters and key plot points. The villains are now neo-Nazis, not Arabs, and no longer is Ryan suspected of cheating on his wife or insider trading, because here he has no wife: Dr. Cathy Muller Ryan, played by Anne Archer in both 1992's Patriot Games and 1994's Clear and Present Danger, is now just Dr. Cathy Muller, Jack's girlfriend, which suggests the existence of a time warp of some kind.
The Sum of All Fears reaches its climax midpoint, when the Super Bowl is laid waste and Ryan is reduced to a bit player till the very end. Director Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams, Sneakers) wants to have it both ways: He's dying to reveal the carnage, but he's also aware that doing so would open fresh wounds in the collective consciousness. So we're given mere hints of the devastation: a tidal wave of countryside destruction (from which Ryan emerges with only scant scrapes), a few scenes in a hospital, a neighborhood on fire. And no one's terribly frightened of the nuclear fallout. We're left to fill in the blanks with fresh memories of real-life destruction, and the result is alienating. We're no longer in the movie but out of the theater, hoping life doesn't again imitate art, as base as it is.
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