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The Sum of All Fears   C+

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Phil Alden Robinson
Writers: Paul Attanasio, Daniel Pyne (based on the novel by Tom Clancy)
Cast: Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman, James Cromwell, Liev Schreiber, Alan Bates, Philip Baker Hall.

Review by Rob Vaux

The Sum of All Fears suffers from a serious identity crisis. On the one hand, it wants to be a serious techno-thriller in the vein of other Tom Clancy movies. But deep down, in places it won't acknowledge even to itself, it wants to be something much more lurid: a James Bond cartoon for the post-9/11 era. Its hero, Jack Ryan, is a comforting figure in these trying times, far more than some tuxedoed superspy. For the first half, the film does right by him and keeps its good face up. Then it switches gears and all but loses its way. The moment of transition is unmistakable, and once you're past it, it's a downhill ride.

Clancy purists, take note. The Sum of All Fears deviates not only from the book, but also from previous cinematic adaptations. It moves "forward into the past," presenting a 2002 Ryan (Ben Affleck), still wet behind the ears and courting his wife-to-be Cathy (Bridget Moynahan). Never mind that in earlier eras, they're married with children. It also takes huge liberties with the plot, replacing Clancy's fanatical Arab terrorists with easier-to-hate neo-Nazis and subsequently adding a lot of new twists and turns. None of it affects the drama a whit -- and indeed, parts of it benefit from the retrofitting -- but it might trouble the more continuity-minded among us.

The film has more difficulty escaping the ghosts of Ryans past. Ben Affleck is competent, but he's no Harrison Ford, and even Alec Baldwin brought a more tangible everyman element to the role. Affleck's breezy style lacks any sense of urgency, which causes problems when the script kicks into overdrive. A little more intensity and a little less charm would have saved this film a world of hurt.

Still, things look promising early on. The Sum of All Fears neatly pigeonholes Clancy's knack for the nuts and bolts of spycraft. We see Ryan and his CIA compatriots analyzing videos of the Russian premiere, strategizing the state of that country based on who is near him, how much weight he's gained, and the like. When Ryan travels there to assist his boss (Morgan Freeman) with a nuclear arms inspection, little details catch his eye. A few scientists are missing from the floor. Are they unwell? The Sum of All Fears tricks this out with energy and intelligence, displaying the old-fashioned watch-and-learn tactics behind even the most cutting edge technology. As Ryan and his associates track the missing scientists (and the sinister plot behind them), director Phil Alden Robinson keeps a firm hand on the reins. Even the PC decision to change the bad guys actually works well in terms of plotting. The fascists have pragmatic motives, which form an engaging puzzle for our heroes to solve, while terrorists will gladly kill themselves to further their agenda... and perhaps touch a little too close to reality for summer movie comfort.

The change comes when their evil plot reaches fruition -- a terrifying attack in a very public forum. Robinson handles it well, and the chilling plausibility of such an attack isn't underplayed, but once the money shot hits, he doesn't have the first idea where to go next. The subsequent action scenes are dreadfully mistimed, the story fumbles on some horribly dated old chestnuts, and Affleck simply can't muster the screen presence to pull us through. The spy clichés rise like unquiet ghosts, from the laborious "countdown to Armageddon" to a laughable Bond-type heavy who menaces Ryan. The latter scenes have raised questions about their appropriateness after the September attacks, but frankly, they play more like an Irwin Allen film than any genuine catastrophe. For 45 minutes, The Sum of All Fears crashes through this environment, before drawing things up in an abrupt finale that utterly fails to satisfy. This film doesn't end so much as stop, and by the time the credits roll, the dramatic build-up is all but destroyed.

Freeman is marvelous, as always, and Liev Schreiber does quite well as icy bagman John Clark. Clark is one of Clancy's best creations, and Schreiber's practiced nonchalance works far better than Affleck's. Some nice cinematography makes the locations sparkle, and Robinson uses a nifty trick of pseudo-satellite photography to set up each new scene. Unfortunately, none of it quite counters the clownish antics in the second hour, or the dreadful decision to add unnecessary bombast to an otherwise agreeable little spy story. The filmmakers really should have known better, and The Sum of All Fears ends up paying the price.

Review published 06.03.2002.

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