Scraped from the pages of Tom Clancy's business-class fiction - bought in airports, a long haul - Jack Ryan's hardly a franchise to elicit fond sighs.
Alec Baldwin got first crack in The Hunt For Red October but when Ryan regenerated into Harrison Ford, Hollywood's hopes were for an American Bond, a white-collar everyhero fighting global techno spooks. What we got instead was Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger, sensible-shoed thrillers with family-in-jeopardy subplots and dumb, blimpy jingoism. Okay, so maybe Ryan was the new Bond. The Timothy Dalton Bond. Blank. Stuffy. More Man At C&A than CIA.
In The Sum Of All Fears, it's back to basics. New mission. New personnel. New chronology. Faced with a novel anchored in the '80s and Ford off the payroll, the producers have fed Ryan's legacy to the shredder. A paradoxical prequel set in the modern day, what's bad news for Clancy purists is good for the movies: liberty-taking logistics apart, this not only grips where its forerunners have slacked, its core premise is a real rattler.
The Russian leader suddenly croaks it and the shadowy Nemerov (Ciarán Hinds) is his potential successor. The Yanks want to know what's going on, so survelliance is upped and lowly political analyst Ryan (Affleck), who knows a thing or two about Nemerov, is drafted in by CIA honcho Morgan Freeman. Ryan's convinced the threat's benign. The sudden nuking of a Baltimore stadium says otherwise. With a vengeful Mr President getting itchy trigger fingers, the clock's ticking for Ryan to nail the real culprits: an obscure facist terrorist faction...
Whereas Ford would lope obstinately into the bedlam with a clenched jaw, Affleck, crucially, plays it dazed. Upended from his desk jockey gig and spluttering in the diplomatic deep-end, there's an endearing futility to Ryan's actions that makes him one thing he's never been before: human. This is a Ryan worth rooting for, even if his romance with trainee GP Bridget Moynahan is only mildly agreeable and Affleck's cocksure fratboy persona occasionally leaks out.
As for director Phil Alden Robinson, job done. Keeping a talky thriller taut and pacey is no mean feat, and bolstered by a game supporting cast, the robust tie-loosening pow-wows snap with conviction and urgency. Thankfully, there's doom-diversion humour too - wry, naturalistic and typical of Robinson (Sneakers, Field Of Dreams).
That said, it's impossible not to be winded by the sheer clout of the mid-section. In a summer of pristine fantasy FX, Sum's noticeably grimmer spectacle isn't a wower, it's a worrier: a billowing mushroom cloud ghosting the suburban horizon. It's a gruesome vision, even if the explosion's aftermath is recorded in chaste, post-11 September friendly images, the impact clatters and that's what counts. A vital drama from a portentous crisis, if you're whelmed after this, your pulse needs a spark-plug.
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Ben Affleck saves the world. Phil Alden Robinson saves a franchise. No question, this is the best Jack Ryan movie yet: fast, intelligent, urgent and exciting.