CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER ** 3/4
Making movie scripts of Tom Clancy's elephantine techno-political action thrillers is impossible without major surgery and modifications. This was done for "The Hunt for Red October" and for "Patriot Games." It is done again for "Clear and Present Danger."
"Games" and "Danger," both directed by Australian Phillip Noyce, have as their hero-protagonist CIA man Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford). Notoriously, Clancy was displeased with the filmed "Games." He gave a repeat performance for "Danger."
To find a modus vivendi with Clancy and with his book, the producers, the director as well as Ford (he had major input) were obliged to involve three writers. I recommend an article about the script's jiggly-juggly adventures, in the August 19 "Entertainment Weekly."
In "Danger," jellybeans-in-the-Oval Office President Bennett (Donald Moffat) is a kind of Reagan-Bush composite with touches of Nixonian reasoning. Upset when a pal of his is murdered at sea, and doubly chagrined when it is revealed that the deceased had multi-million dealings with the Colombian drug cartel of Ernesto Escobar (sic!), Bennett and two advisors decide to attack the "narcotraficantes" by secret force of arms.
The President's men direct mysterious field agent Mr. Clark (Willem Dafoe) to organize a tiny commando, elite force. But although Jack Ryan, now acting CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence, is also an advisor, he is kept in the dark.
Bennett's rationale is the law that nixes American military intervention save when there is "a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States." This is just the bare bones start of a monumentally complicated plot that includes deceptions and duplicity by the ton, stolen information, a treacherous and ambitious advisor to Escobar, double-crossings, covert deal-making between bad guys and good-guys-who-are-really-bad-guys, a great deal of high-tech and electronics in weapons, communications, sonography (identification by voice), smart bombs and... you name it, they've got it.
"Danger" shifts Clancy's rightist attitude to a more liberal view -- but not altogether: you discern the hand of Clancy's political fellow-traveler John Milius ("Red Dawn," "Magnum Force," "Apocalypse Now") in the more rah-rah elements, while writers Donald Stewart ("The Hunt for Red October," "Patriot Games," Oscar for "Missing")) and Steven Zaillian (Oscar for "Schindler's List') are less nationalistic.
The intrigue, even shorn of Clancian homilies, asides, sub-sub-plots and exhausting techno-babble, is so complicated that it makes "Patriot Games" feel as lucidly homey as an old Hollywood B-movie. It is so complicated that it can become annoying if not often impenetrable. At least, it was for me, and it should also be for others who are less plot-inclined but more geared to character, language and logic.
The plot also includes a great deal of action. Its centerpiece is an attack by rooftop snipers on a small convoy of Chevrolet Suburbans carrying Americans in a long, narrowish street of Bogota. It is the equivalent of a Western's ambush-in-a-pass -- but all the same, it is masterfully shot and edited.
The Western notion holds until the end, where a cliche climax includes the time-and-flick-honored mano a mano combat between hero Ryan and arch-villain Cortez (Joaquim de Almeida). Cortez, by the way, is also a slick Latin lover who has seduced U.S. Government employee Ann Magnuson to nefarious espionage ends. This sub-plot lacks background in the film while, in the book it has greater verisimilitude.
What information I have about the movie's production inspires awe. It was shot in many U.S. and Mexican studios and locations ; it uses specil effects with admirable skill; it re-engineered computers to synchronize their screens with movie cameras; it blended computer imagery with regular footage; it created or recreated sets; and so on.
Even without knowing how the film was made, even when you give up trying to ratiocinate the plot, there are several felicitous visuals: a rare view of the White House in the context of the surrounding buildings removes some of its cliche majesty and makes it part of a larger machinery; the sights of drug lords celebrating an anniversary and surrounded by kids, "Godfather"- style; a smart bomb whose trajectory is wonderfully suspenseful; a plane's banking that is sheer poetry; another plane that seems to be defecating soldiers. .
Were I to rate the movie for its mechanics alone, I'd give it four stars. But then, the needless plot complexities overshadow the complexities of substance. No matter how powerful or theatrical the various characters, they lack clear and present dimensions. To some extent this also applies to Harrison Ford, whose Mr. Nice-and-Gutsy works well as Indiana Jones but here lacks the kind of personality that can dominate the picture, like a Gregory Peck or a Robert Mitchum, or, these days, a Tommy Lee Jones.