Revisiting Patriot Games: The First Jack Ryan “Reboot”
We take a look back at the 1992 action thriller that introduced Harrison Ford as Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan...
“I’d done too many suit-and-tie jobs and I reckoned I had to hit somebody in my next movie”- Harrison Ford, ahead of the release of Patriot Games.
When The Hunt For Red October hit big for Paramount in 1990, the studio knew fairly quickly it had potential sequels on its hands. The character of Jack Ryan, after all, had featured in four Tom Clancy novels even by that stage, with another five to follow. And with Alec Baldwin cast as Ryan – and over $200 million banked at the box office – it surely wouldn’t be too long before another instalment followed.
Just over two years, in fact (back at a stage when two years between related films was very, very much the exception). But there would be major changes to the Jack Ryan movies before a frame of the next movie was shot.
A quick aside: The Hunt For Red October, ironically, was shot on the stage next to the one where Kenneth Branagh was putting Dead Again together (Branagh would helm the most recent Jack Ryan movie, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit). But Red October‘s director, John McTiernan, would not be back for what would prove to be the next Jack Ryan adventure, Patriot Games.
McTiernan was certainly offered Patriot Games, but given his own Irish-American background, he said back in 1999 that he was “a bit uncomfortable with that.” Thus, his own preference for Ryan’s next screen adventure was Clear And Present Danger, for which a script was being put together. McTiernan passed though (and would make the, er, ‘quality challenged’ Medicine Man instead, ironically with Connery) when it was clear that Patriot Games was next. Alec Baldwin would follow him out of the exit door.
At the time, the reason given for a change in Ryan was Baldwin’s commitment to A Streetcar Named Desireon Broadway. More recently, he declared to The Huffington Post that “the studio cut my throat,” allegedly ditching him from the series because “Paramount owed [a very famous movie star] a large sum of money for a greenlit film that fell apart.” Baldwin added that “pushing me aside would help to alleviate that debt and put someone with much greater strength at the box office than mine in the role.”
Baldwin didn’t name Harrison Ford, but given that it was Ford who replaced him as Jack Ryan in Patriot Games (and the excellent Clear And Present Danger), it may be fair to assume that’s who he was getting at.
A New Ryan
Patriot Games, then, pressed ahead quickly with a new director (Dead Calm‘s Phillip Noyce) and a new Mr and Mrs Ryan (Ford and Anne Archer replacing Baldwin and Gates McFadden. Yep). Human spoiler Sean Bean was cast as lead villain – Sean Archer – and in common with all Ryan movies, a strong ensemble was assembled: Samuel L Jackson, James Earl Jones, Patrick Bergin and Richard Harris all turn up in this one. Quality casting runs, for the most part, through the Jack Ryan boxset.
Still, I remember at the time liking Patriot Games, but not really being bowled over by it (conversely, I’ve long loved Clear And Present Danger, and I’ll come to that in a future article). The finale doesn’t help, with an added-on battle between Messrs Ford and Bean which, even if you didn’t know it was stuck on late in the production, you could still hazard a comfortable guess that was the case (it was Roger Ebert who described it as an “Indiana Jones ending”).
And yet, rewatching Patriot Games, I warmed to it a lot, lot more. Perhaps that’s because it feels just a little riskier than your average Hollywood summer film now. Harrison Ford twice in his career has made films that incorporate the IRA to some degree, and twice he’s courted controversy for it. Perhaps Patriot Games didn’t get as much attention as the fumbled The Devil’s Own would many years later (it still seems unfair that that’s the last movie of the great Alan J Pakula), but there’s something surprisingly jarring about a clean-cut Hollywood star – and really, who at their peak does these roles better than Ford? – thrust into the middle of Irish politics.
Perhaps “thrust into the middle” is overegging it a little, but there are clearly themes here that make it possible to see why John McTiernan walked. The main plot is kickstarted by an IRA hit on a member of the British royal family. In Clancy’s original book – which the film goes to great lengths to ignore (the late author quickly denounced the film) – it was the Princess of Wales. In the film, they give Edward Fox a tinkle instead, playing Lord Holmes. Whoever he is.
The crucial part is that Ryan – in a strong action sequence – foils the assassination attempt, and kills Sean Archer’s brother in the process. He gets three things in exchange for this act. One is a gunshot wound. Another is a medal from the British establishment, which for reasons of needing an exciting last act will be presented in a remote house in the middle of nowhere. And the third is a vendetta, as Sean Archer vows to avenge his brother’s death.
Patriot Games, interestingly, shows both signs of the coin. Whilst we expect to get a lot of time with the protagonist, Noyce’s film explores the friction within the IRA cell as well. This is best personified by Patrick Bergin – and heck, we remember when he was Robin Hood – trying to keep the focus on the mission, and Bean’s Archer, who has other ideas. It is not long before the human spoiler goes renegade, across three continents.
Furthermore, the film is willing to explore all of this through the age-old medium of adults having a conversation.
Ford’s Ryan, thus, we learn is no longer part of the CIA, and it’s going to take something monumental to persuade him otherwise (setting a template for Jack Bauer’s regular refusal to rejoin CTU in the TV show 24). He’s an analyst – “analyse that,” he’s ordered at one stage, just to make that clear – and does most of his work from an office, staring at computer screens, and looking at dot matrix printer output. At one stage, he gets a 386 computer to enhance the photographic output of a satellite, which it does really rather quickly. I’m sure you’ll join me in a quick chuckle at that, chums of a very nerdy persuasion.
This background is crucial. Ryan isn’t James Bond or Jason Bourne, and never was. He’s a family man at heart, and indeed, Noyce took the film on in the first place because he saw it as “a film about a man’s relationship with his family.” It’s no coincidence therefore that in the bulk of the action sequences, Ryan’s family is involved. And they are pivotal in his decision to rejoin the CIA.
What all this means is that when Phillip Noyce does choose to employ an action sequence, he really makes it count (again, a theme across both his Ryan movies). After the initial assassination attempt then in the early stages of the film, things turn when Archer comes directly after Ryan’s wife and daughter. He does this in a strongly-staged car chase, that ends in an argument with the central reservation. Even before that, we’ve had Sean Archer’s prison van breakout, which Noyce presents and frames exceptionally well. His action sequences have a distinct beginning, middle and end, and there’s never any confusion to them. Nor, crucially, do they drag on.
The best of them though is the one at the end. It’s perhaps Patriot Games‘ biggest logic gap that it allows a vulnerable royal and an IRA target to allow themselves all to be gathered at an isolated house, guarded by a few blokes with walkie talkies. Even if Samuel L Jackson is one of the people protecting it.
Yet – in an attack that would surely offer some revision for the Skyfall team decades later – Noyce stages an extremely tense game of hide and seek in a house whose lights have been cut. All of this has held up really well, too, and there’s something – appreciating the cliche – edge of the seat about it. At least until they get to the bloody boats and the staged ultimate final showdown. That said, it’s not often Sean Bean gets past the 105 minute mark of a film, and it would be unthinkable for him to make it to the end credits. Maybe they needed those boats after all.
What’s common to each of the sequences is that human beings aren’t treated like props. One of the joys of the wonderful train sequence at the start of JJ Abrams’ Super 8, for example, is it keeps its focus on the characters, and that you can keep track of what they’re up to. Patriot Games never blinks once in that regard. We’re in an era pre-the Michael Bay edit suite software, and you can very much tell.
Noyce certainly has his eye on 70s thrillers here too, knowing when to go slow (unsurprisingly, Branagh too citied that era as an influence when he took on a Jack Ryan film). Simple things like analysing data become really quite thrilling in his hands. Heck, in Clear And Present Danger, he makes waiting for a computer printout seem as edge of the seat as a quality action moment in a big blockbuster.
Considering it comes in just under two hours, Patriot Games, in hindsight, packs in quite a lot of storytelling, yet rarely feels cramped. It’s got its uneasy moments too, not least when Ryan confronts Richard Harris’ Paddy O’Neil in a pub, threatening to put pictures of his daughter in her hospital bed on TV, in a propaganda move against the IRA.
There’s a fusion of logic throughout the screenplay too (again, save for the house at the end), which means when Ryan has to convince his boss that it’s actually the mysterious Annette they should be hunting, he comes up with a reason that makes logical sense. It’s the simple things that matter, and it feels as though someone has spent time with the script, making sure enough crumbs are laid down, to make moments feel real and count for something.
Patriot Games doesn’t bear much relation to the film that, in theory, it’s a follow-up to; the change of personnel from The Hunt For Red October – and the lack of Sean Connery’s refusal to do a Russian accent – does make it feel a different beast. Not for nothing was Patriot Games intended to be the start of a new trilogy.
Still, there are one or two crossovers. The mighty James Earl Jones is back as Greer, and remains the owner of a voicebox that many mortal beings would love to own. Then, early in the film, Ryan gives an address to the Royal Naval Academy, talking about the threat posed by the Soviet fleet. You’ll find one or two other hat tips in there, but in the Ryan boxset, it’s only really Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger that feel properly linked.
Patriot Games seemed expensive at the time, a $40-45 million thriller (of which $9 million apparently went to its star) with an adult rating. But it’s just the kind of grown-up, mid-budget thriller we get precious little of in the modern movie world. Jack Reacher, ironically, was about the last mainstream one (given that the price of that was a relatively modest $60m), and yet for all the highs and lows of that project, it didn’t have quite the same level of courage of Patriot Games (although it too owes a debt to many past thrillers, and boasts a superb, tense opening sequence).
The film has a further trump card too, in that it’s got a wonderful James Horner score. It’d be remiss not to mention that.
And this one ultimately does come back to family. It’s bookended by sequences of the Ryans at home (including a young Thora Birch, many years before American Beauty), and ends in such a wonderfully low key cliffhanger, that you can’t help but grin. It’s the only big Hollywood thriller I can think of with such an EastEnders-esque final scene, as we’re teased to the gender of the new Ryan offspring. Audiences had three options: wait for the next film, thumb through a book or two in WH Smiths, or not give a shit.
Perhaps Patriot Games does suffer a little from having that Hollywood-tinged look at Britain for a start (although the first X-Files movie is still my favorite example of this), replete with black cabs, Beefeaters and marching bands. Furthermore, it can’t just be me and, er, Roger Ebert that sat there and drew one or two Indiana Jonesparallels, as Ford’s character starts off a teacher, before becoming an action man.
But still: this is an intelligent, interesting piece of work. It’s not one that did quite the level of box office business that was expected, and the British press in particular took umbrage at the way the movie dealt with the IRA in some quarters. Yet it’s stood the test of time. Even on its release, it landed opposite in a summer that featured the likes of Lethal Weapon 3, Far And Away and Batman Returns. It stood apart a little then. It looks even more distinct in the context of modern blockbusters.
Thus, whilst Tom Clancy would tell the press in advance of the movie’s release that “the product they are turning out is a disaster”, and that “to the best of my knowledge, there’s not a single scene in the movie that tracks with a scene in the book”, Patriot Games emerged as a very good thriller. But the best Ryan movie was to follow next…