There's a harrowing scene in Patriot Games in which Harrison Ford playing Tom Clancy's perennial hero, Naval Academy teacher and ex-CIA man Jack Ryan watches via satellite as the Company terminates a terrorist training camp in Libya. As human targets are ''neutralized'' on the computer screen at CIA headquarters, the viewer viscerally understands how technology has distanced human values to the point where deaths are no longer even statistics they're just pixels that vanish in a flash.
If its main characters were anything more than pixels in suits, Patriot Games might be harrowing every half minute. The movie moves: There's no letup as terrorist Sean Miller (Sean Bean) and his pals (Patrick Bergin and Polly Walker) try to avenge the loss of Miller's young brother after the ever-resourceful Ryan kills him during an IRA attack on the British royal family. They pursue our white-bread hero, his eye-surgeon wife (Anne Archer), and his daughter (Thora Birch) with a relentlessness that verges on the truly boring.
Watching Patriot Games is like looking into a crowded goldfish bowl where precious little distinguishes one inhabitant from another. The terrorists are mean; Ryan, his family, and the CIA are not. And Patriot Games doesn't tell a story; it just keeps pushing the same buttons over and over.
So why is The Hunt for Red October from the pen of the same author and featuring the same hero so superior? First off, Clancy's Red October yarn is much more clever than the bang-their-heads-against-the-wall Patriot Games. A new Soviet submarine, Red October, undetectable by sonar and capable of parking warheads a stone's throw off the East coast of America without anyone's knowing, is heading our way. The CIA thinks its captain (Sean Connery) may be a madman, and the Soviets, sending 58 of their subs into the Atlantic to destroy Red October, corroborate that theory. But Ryan (Alec Baldwin) thinks the captain might be attempting to defect.
The Hunt for Red October is classic suspense, because the pleasure in watching it comes from not being given certain information, whereas in Patriot Games we know practically everything. Red October's chesslike plot moves have a formal, mathematical beauty. And the movie includes all of the technological and mechanical detail that has long grabbed the attention of Clancy's faithful readers.
But the great difference between these two adaptations can be found in the men who play Ryan. Baldwin, who opted out of Paramount's projected Clancy series prior to Patriot Games, gives Ryan a boyish charm and smartness. When he demands to land by helicopter on a sub in the mid-Atlantic, he's like a bad boy who's doing something he really shouldn't. There's humor in Baldwin's performance, a submerged tongue-in-cheek quality and often an ironic twist to his tone of voice. Harrison Ford, on the other hand, is as sober as five judges. There's such a lack of generosity in his performance, you'd think he was teaching at a navel-gazing academy.
Comparing these two videos tells you one thing for sure: Without character, you can't have suspense only onslaught. It's interesting that one of the major characters in Red October is one who never appears, and that's the Soviet captain's dead wife. Ryan thinks the captain is planning to defect on the first anniversary of her death, and she comes up often in the dialogue between the captain and his crew. Though nameless, she's much more real and more of a presence than Anne Archer is in Patriot Games. Even on video, it seems, ectoplasm is preferable to pixels. Patriot Games: C- The Hunt for Red October: B+