Clear And Present Danger: the best Jack Ryan film

An intelligent, dense political thriller in the middle of summer? We visit Harrison Ford in Tom Clancy's Clear And Present Danger...

This article contains spoilers for, you guessed it, Clear And Present Danger.

How many times have you walked out of seeing a big summer blockbuster movie, and felt like you’d been treated like a grown-up? Christopher Nolan movies, whether you like them or not, treat you with that level of respect. But when it comes to major thrillers, there’s generally something about them where you feel you’ve been shortchanged.

It’s why it puzzles me that Clear And Present Danger doesn’t get a lot more love. From the day I saw it for the first time back in 1994, and on every viewing since, I’ve really loved this film. I love that it isn’t afraid of a dense plot, isn’t afraid of putting a big movie star on the poster yet finds time for supporting characters, and that, in 144 minutes, it’s really very light on action. This is a political thriller, where corrupted people do unpleasant things.

Cinders

In a weird way, Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan here has a touch of Cinderella about him. Cinderella is a character who exists in a story where everything around her is dark and murky, yet she remains positive, unsullied and bright. Ford’s Ryan is described in this one as a “boy scout,” and perhaps more than in any of the other four Jack Ryan movies to date, that’s exactly what he is. He believes in a way of doing things, and everything he does is motivated by what he believes to be right and proper. He’s an idealist, in a sea of characters where power has clearly taken hold.

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Notably too, he’s never fully out of a suit in this one (although the jacket comes off when he jumps to Columbia). Clear And Present Danger dials back the family focus of Ford’s Ryan debut, Patriot Games, and instead quickly picks a meaty subject, and sets about dissecting it. Drugs, in this case, explored from different angles. We’re not talking The Wire levels of scrutiny, to be clear, but at least Clear And Present Danger gives it a go. Thus, we get a brief moment or two with Ryan’s wife, daughter and new-ish born son (resolving the cliffhanger from Patriot Games), but it’s clear immediately that a year or two has passed. Ryan is fully ensconced in the CIA. There’s shit that needs sorting out.

It’s clear too that James Earl Jones’ Admiral Greer, perhaps the other pure-ish character in the midst of all this, will not be making it to the end credits. And that, in turn, is the catalyst for Jack Ryan moving into an office within the corridors of power, while Greer heads to hospital.

It’s interesting to see just how easily Ryan is played pretty much as soon as he walks into the corridors of power, and how naive he’s allowed to be. Considering he’s the ‘hero’ of the piece, his weaknesses are laid out for us, fairly brutally. Thus, he’s quickly ramraided into a trip to Columbia, which is part of a bigger agenda, much to the bemusement – and amusement – of Greer. Ryan, in many respects, is out of his depth in the first half of the film. And the film is not afraid to show it.

Crackdown

Let’s go straight to the Oval Office, then. Donald Moffat’s work here as President Bennett is excellent. Around the time of every US presidential election, websites fall over themselves to do a list of the top 10 fictional heads of state, but Moffat rarely gets mentioned. Yet he’s eerily plausible. He made an election promise to crack down on drugs, yet he’s made no tangible difference during his time in office. This feels like a very real problem.

Thus, when the opportunity arises to seize $650m in drug money, you can see the headlines light up in his eyes. In fact, the priority of getting a headline features again in Clear And Present Danger, when in a clinical, sinister moment, a secret US army is given over to main antagonist Felix Cortez – played by Joaquim de Almeida – with the promise of regular drug seizures that US authorities can take credit for. Sacrifice some troops, you get your political capital, basically. Yikes. It sounds eerily plausible.

Mind you, Moffat’s President is squeaky clean when you compare him to his staff. Because like Ryan, Bennett too is being played. “He’s your job”, sneers Henry Czerny’s Robert Ritter to Harris Yulin’s James Cutter at one point. And it’s these two who undertake the dirty work, ordering a secret war – ‘Reciprocity’ – on Columbian soil, waged by the aforementioned small team of American troops.

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Those troops are led by Willem Dafoe’s John Clark, who author Tom Clancy spun out into books of his own. Around the time, there was criticism that Dafoe never really captured the role of Clark as written, but his performance here demonstrates what Jack Ryan would be if he played by different rules. Clark takes the off-the-books mission, earning some successes before ultimately being sold out for his trouble.

There had been talk, incidentally, that the character of Clark would get his own spin-off movie series, but – to date – that’s never happened (the more recent Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was also said to be setting up Kevin Costner’s Thomas Harper for his own film, but the dampened box office of that movie ended hopes of another).

The narrative of Clear And Present Danger establishes that Jack Ryan knows nothing about Reciprocity, and again, he finds himself blindly walking into trouble when he goes before the US legislature and assures senators that there will be “no troops”. A statement, unbeknownst to Ryan, that was false before he even breathed the words. “Watch your back, Jack,” Greer warns Ryan from his hospital room. Wise words, as it would turn out, and not ones that were heeded.

There’s a further narrative angle that Clear And Present Danger affords itself time to explore, and that’s the position of the Columbian drug lords. Chief amongst them is Ernesto Escobedo, played by Migeul Sandoval (best known now for the TV show Medium). Yet it’s the man he contracts that’s really pulling the strings: Cortez.

Cortez is cold, clever, and playing both Escobedo and the US government. At one stage, he’s having a perhaps slightly too convenient affair with the assistant to the director of the FBI, Moira Wolfson. This still feels like the one really contrived bit of the film, not least the scene where Anne Archer’s Cathy Ryan catches sight of Moira conveniently in a restaurant. I have no problem with the idea that Cathy and Moira may know each other, but the rest feels like with it is: a chance meeting to fill in a plot problem.

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Nonetheless: we get to see the issue of Columbian drug cartels from the angle of the President, his staff, Ryan, and the cartels themselves. This, certainly, makes the screenplay from Donald E Stewart, Steven Zaillian and John Milius a dense one. And, at the time of the film’s release, there were some who argued that the movie’s narrative had lost them. I’m usually a sucker for losing the story in the middle of a thriller, but this one always had me. Given so much is packed in, Clear And Present Danger always gives itself space to explore things.

Yet this is still a summer blockbuster. This was Paramount Pictures’ most traditional big summer movie of 1994 (mind you, surprise hit Forrest Gump was hardly shabby, although Beverly Hills Cop 3 certainly was), its big star-driven action effort. At least on paper. So what makes the film even more surprising is just how light it is on action.

To be fair, Patriot Games set out a template of sorts for this. That movie kept its action sequences in relatively short supply, and made them count. Clear And Present Danger adjusts the balance still further.

Print Screen

Thus, the film ekes out tension from detail. There’s a sequence where Harrison Ford is trying something as trivial as printing out a vital piece of paper before, er, files are deleted in front of him in that Hollywood way. And not to be a pedant about this, but most computers needed more than a whack of the Print Screen button to, well, print out the screen.

Yet as Ryan furiously jams A4 into his laser printer (presumably, the CIA wasn’t one of those many organisations in 1994 that had decent queuing and spooling software on its machines), I felt myself tense up. Even on a rewatch. Yep, that might sound silly. It’s like the bit in Disclosure where Michael Douglas is playing with Demi Moore’s virtual reality bobbins, unaware that she’s walking back to her office. But that’s what good direction does. It makes you care about small moments, and if you build enough of them, the big stuff counts.

Director Phillip Noyce was no slouch at building tension into the preceding movie, Patriot Games. But he really invests even more here in stillness, in dialogue, and in human characters. That work pays off.

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And then he’s got his centrepiece action scene. The assault on Ryan’s convoy in Columbia is outstanding. Once again, it’s a case of showing the set up (and on rewatching, I appreciated just how much time investment Noyce put into the build up), seeing how the pieces fall into place, and then hitting Ryan and his team over and over again, so they’re just about pulling themselves to safety, having sustained heavy casualties. The sequence doesn’t drag, it doesn’t go on for too long. It just works. Brilliantly.

It’s not the only action moment, mind. John Clark’s guerilla war is played out in pieces too, and there’s another superb sequence as the assorted Columbian druglords are blown to smithereens. Even then, Clear And Present Danger can hardly be accused of playing things up for the trailer. The movie cuts to see the innocent young bystanders about to be caught in the midst of an American missile, and logically leaves behind crumbs for Cortez to investigate later.

Again: it’s details. Somebody has thought about things, and thought about how these moments should impact us.

Ritter Critter

And with that, we have to talk about Henry Czerny and Harrison Ford.

In a film full of interesting performances, and actors working their damnedest to bring real characters to the screen, it’s Henry Czerny who puts across one of the most chilling. His Robert Ritter is the kind of operator we assume that governments have, but don’t like to think about. Using a phone, a fax machine, a memo and the right words, his actions can and do lead to death, all before he leaves his cosy office and pops off for a cappuccino.

It’s hard to think of too many character actors in the 90s who managed to combine a sneer, pinpoint and unfussy delivery, and the personification of an organisation, to such devastating effect. “You don’t have one of these, do you Jack?” he quietly says to Ryan near the end, waving the document that all but immunises him from taking the fall for Reciprocity. He pretty much outthinks everyone in the film, and the only way to bring him down would be for Ryan to head back to Columbia. Which, of course, happens. Not that we get a whizzbang finale. Clear And Present Danger plays by slightly different rules.

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We saw Czerny, incidentally, in the first and best Mission: Impossible movie too, as Kittridge, trying to bring Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in early on in that film. More recently, he’s been a series regular in Revenge. But in terms of Clear And Present Danger, in a film that very much proves that multiple villains can do work, he’s the standout for me. I don’t say that lightly either.

But we also have to talk about Harrison Ford. I talked when discussing Patriot Games about just how well Ford plays roles such as Ryan, the action hero in the suit. Yet it’s also his sheer generosity that deserves respect. The 90s was the last vestige of the movie star era, where scripts were being rewritten to give the lead actor the best lines, and more screen time. Ford, here, is off screen for large chunks of time, and even when he’s on, he often ensures his character is just that: a character in a larger world. If Ryan need not be the centrepiece of a particular scene, he isn’t. And Ford is committed to that.

Relevance

Appreciating that the technology has aged, and that fashions have slightly altered, Clear And Present Danger is a political thriller that still stands up far, far better than most of its ilk. Whilst many devotees of the Clancy books cite the source material as being strong anyway, at one stage, this was planned to be Harrison Ford’s debut as Ryan. But I’m glad it wasn’t. Patriot Games bedded in his slightly different take on the character, and set the ensemble in place. Clear And Present Danger is thus freed to tell a complicated story in an accessible, interesting and really rather gripping way.

Clear And Present Danger leads into a missing Jack Ryan film, of course. It ends with him refusing to play Washington power games, refuting President Bennett’s attempts to shut him up by telling him he’s now got a seat at the big table. The plan was for Harrison Ford to return to the role and complete a trilogy, and work began on adapting Tom Clancy’s The Cardinal Of The Kremlin as the next chapter. That work did not go well, and attention soon switched to The Sum Of All Fears instead.

As late as early 2000 – nearly six years after the release of Clear And Present Danger – that was still being lined up for Harrison Ford and director Phillip Noyce. By the middle of June 2000, though, it was clear that the ongoing script problems with The Sum Of All Fears weren’t getting solved. Ford quit Jack Ryan, and Phillip Noyce left too. The Sum Of All Fears screenplay was thus substantially rewritten – “I wrote the book they ignored,” joked Tom Clancy on the DVD commentary – and Ben Affleck became the third screen Jack Ryan. It was a good idea at the time (and The Sum Of All Fears turned out to be a very good film).

It’s a shame, though, that we never got to see Ford’s Ryan climbing up the political pole still further, as he did in the books. And it’s a shame too that we never got to see Ryan this old again. Both subsequent reboots went much younger. Given the work that had been put in to get the character on screen so far by that stage, it was a pity. An experienced yet naive operator in the Washington system? Well, it feels like we lost a more interesting movie.

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Still, Clear And Present Danger, if you hadn’t guessed, is my favourite of the Ryan movies, and one of my favourite mainstream thrillers of the 1990s, full stop. Rewatching it? It’s not diminished one bit (whereas with Patriot Games, I warmed to the film more with more modern eyes, oddly enough). It still rewards a concentrated watch.

I still need the tissues when Ryan gets the phone call about Greer, though…