The first hour of Clear and Present Danger, the newest big-budget movie version of one of Tom Clancy’s wildly popular techno-political thrillers, is about as exciting as a transcript of presidential remarks made in the White House Rose Garden. This is unfortunate, since it’s also the hour in which the premise is laid out, the players are introduced, and in which Anne Archer — once again playing the supportive-but-damn-successful-in-her-own-career wife of Clancy’s recurring hero, CIA man Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford, alive and wiser for it after Patriot Games) — gets to say, ”Be careful!” As everyone who saw the previous Ryan yarn knows, this is the universal signal that Jack, a paragon of low-keyed integrity, is about to leave on yet another insanely dangerous mission.
During the slow exposition (the screenplay is by Donald Stewart, Steven Zaillian, and John Milius; it is directed, as was Patriot Games, by Phillip Noyce), an attentive viewer learns that rich pals of the President who have been found murdered in the Caribbean may have been involved with a South American drug cartel. You learn that the President wants to wage a war on those cartels, calling the kingpins a ”clear and present danger to the security of the United States” (and thus a candidate for military action). You get Clancy’s favorite point that the deeper, more insidious danger lies within, not without, in the secret government of National Security Council weasels who conduct competing covert South American operations and take the law into their own bloody hands. And you learn that Adm. James Greer (James Earl Jones), the stentorian deputy director of the CIA, is now dying of cancer and has designated Ryan as acting deputy director.
You learn all this in a semi-stupor — Noyce and photography director Donald M. McAlpine limit their palette to a bureaucratic-looking blue-gray that had me slipping briefly into a nightmare in which I was locked in the Department of Motor Vehicles. And then — Boom! — there’s a spectacular shoot-‘em-up sequence in which a motorcade of American government types in Colombia (Ryan among them) is ambushed and attacked in a barrage of shells and flames. The pace, the tension, the characteristically contained but expressive style of Harrison Ford are rousing. The audience wakes up. And then we have to backtrack: Who were those guys again? Who’s doing what to whom? How does renegade CIA operative Clark (Willem Dafoe) keep his blond hair looking so nice in the jungle?
In such a way pass 2 1/2 hours, which is a hell of a long time for picking off a couple of drug lords and following a trail of Washingtonian duplicity. This Clancy contraption, like Patriot Games before it, alternates long stretches of stasis and distraction with short bursts of clever drama. During the long bits, you muse about the icy eyes of the story’s chilliest meanie, CIA deputy operations director Robert Ritter (Henry Czerny, thoroughly believable in another Bad Guy role after his powerful work in The Boys of St. Vincent); those eyes, hard and sneaky behind steel-rimmed glasses, match the movie’s color scheme perfectly. During the dramatic bits, meanwhile, you remember that one of the reasons Clancy is a millionaire is that he can make nerdy technology and geeky government busywork seem sinister or sexy by turns. There’s a secret, he implies, to be pried out of every office computer screen, and, indeed, one of the more elegant small moments of suspense occurs as Ryan races to break into Ritter’s computer files.
What sticks in my mind the longest, though, is not so much a memory of the story line (which is, in the end, a cranking potboiler) or a sense of directing style (which is, in the end, flat and dense), but rather an uneasy admiration for the slick efficiency with which this summer candy services the current political temperament. Consider: As Bennett, the Old Boy President under whose administration this hell breaks loose, Donald Moffat creates a character who is part Reagan (the supposedly kindly, selectively deaf old man), part Bush (the well-connected preppie), and part nostalgic throwback to a Nixonian era of righteous public outrage about government crimes and cover-ups. At the beginning of Clear and Present Danger, Bennett comes across as an ineffectual fool; by the end, when the treacheries of his Watergate-style henchmen have been exposed, Bennett is portrayed as a man up to those deceptive eyebrows in guilt. Ryan, in contrast, nearly glows with pained indignation (Ford at this point has pared his movements down to little haikus of emotion) and makes a terse and pretty protest speech of a kind we who no longer live in Nixonian times rarely get a chance to hear anymore in popular entertainment.
In its way, the clear and present danger of this pop production is that we are given permission to feel good about feeling cynical about government, and we are so grateful for the sermon that we forget we don’t quite buy how this movie got to this punchline in the first place. C+