Just in time for the 1992 campaign over ”family values,” we have Patriot Games, the latest adaptation of a Tom Clancy novel, in which Harrison Ford fights to save his wife and daughter from a small cult of Irish terrorists. Two years ago, the movie version of Clancy’s high-tech submarine thriller The Hunt for Red October raised a lot of speculative ballyhoo about whether audiences would show up to watch America, one last time, defeat the Evil Empire. Well, show up they did — Red October was a huge hit. But its success probably had less to do with Clancy’s saber-rattling Cold War premise than with the simple fact that the movie was a deluxe and fairly entertaining entry in the submarine-thriller genre.
Patriot Games doesn’t risk looking politically out of date the way Red October did. Once again, Clancy’s hero is the renegade CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Ford, taking over the role from Alec Baldwin). This time, though, it isn’t the movie’s ideological thrust that feels musty; it’s the thriller form itself. Patriot Games is serviceable entertainment, with some exciting action set pieces, but it’s also stolid and prosaic; it lacks the dazzle and intricacy a movie like this one needs. There are too many scenes of anonymous white-collar types sitting around rooms planning perfectly unremarkable undercover operations. Most of the film won’t raise your pulse by three beats.
Vacationing in Britain with his wife and daughter, Jack, now officially retired from the CIA, happens to be standing by as a group of Irish terrorists attempts to kidnap a member of the royal family. Darting into the center of the gunfire, he foils the plan and kills one of the would-be kidnappers.
The terrorists, it turns out, are a radical fringe group that has broken off from the Irish Republican Army. One of them (Sean Bean), the older brother of the terrorist who was killed, wants revenge, and so he leads a carefully planned assault against Jack’s family.
In Patriot Games, Clancy has taken his usual anxieties about national security and transferred them to the domestic front. The Ryans are a rosy idealization of American suburban bliss — a George Bush pro-family speech come to life. Harrison Ford’s Jack is stalwart and playful, a father-figure James Bond. His wife (Anne Archer, who did a less cloying version of the same character in Fatal Attraction) is warm, nurturing, sexy, and a dedicated eye surgeon. Then there’s the brainy, poised-beyond-her-years daughter (Thora Birch). The iconic perfection of the Ryans is meant to give the story its emotional kick. Jack isn’t just saving loved ones — why, he’s preserving a way of life! He rejoins the CIA, only now he’s suffused with the righteous anger of a vigilante.
Ford just about walks through this role. He’s the rare action star who’s witty enough to thrive on good dialogue, yet playing Jack Ryan (this is the first of three proposed Ford-Clancy movies), he doesn’t get much of it. Then again, repartee isn’t Clancy’s forte. Hardware is — hardware and techno — bureaucratic detail.
Red October did one thing terrifically: It made us feel we were right on that submarine, amid the gizmos, the military boys, and the computer-heads. For Patriot Games to have been more than a generic international thriller, it would have needed to take us deep inside the clandestine organizations — the IRA and the CIA — on which Clancy is fixated. That doesn’t happen. The terrorists are a bland, sketchy lot; we barely even learn why they have rejected their fellow Irish radicals. And not enough of the plot is rooted in the pileup of information that is Clancy’s specialty. At one point, a team of U.S.-backed commandos makes an assassination raid on a terrorist camp, and Jack watches the whole deadly encounter on a silent video screen. For a moment, the impersonality of a CIA operation carries a sinister undertone; Jack himself seems haunted, ambivalent. But his reaction is just about the only thing in the movie that doesn’t feel preprogrammed. C+