Review: Patriot Games

by Tom Ingram

I’m not a fan of recasting characters in the middle of a series unless there’s a good reason (ie, someone died). It looks unprofessional and it’s hard to follow from a viewer’s point of view, and in many cases the replacement isn’t as good as the original (I’m looking at you, Don Cheadle). I was skeptical of the Tom Clancy movies after The Hunt For Red October, because they replaced Alec Baldwin with Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan.

That said, I have to admit it was the right decision. Alec Baldwin was simply too young and pretty to be a retired-Marine history professor with his own children. He was believable only as a rookie, and Jack Ryan is not supposed to be a rookie. Harrison Ford has sixteen years on him, and he’s played a history professor before. Looking at him, I can totally believe that he teaches US sailors about the Athenian navy in his spare time. I can also believe that he could kick the shit out of me if he wanted. Ford probably would have made Red October even better than it was, and Patriot Games certainly would not be watchable with Baldwin in the lead.

It’s very different from Red October, tone-wise. There was really no point in the first movie where Ryan’s life was in danger, except for the gunfight at the end. The conflict was entirely intellectual, and it was almost entirely fought by people other than Jack Ryan. Patriot Games not only puts Jack in danger, it takes shots at his wife and kid, too. The TV show 24 owes a lot to this movie. It deals with terrorism in the pre-2001 sense, but Jacks Ryan and Bauer have a lot in common right down to the catchphrase “son of a bitch”.

Still, this is fundamentally a movie about the good guys winning because they outsmart the bad guys. One particularly interesting decision is the commando raid about three quarters of the way through. This destroys the terrorist operations, leaving only the ringleaders alive for the end of the movie. There are helicopters and soldiers blowing things up in the desert, and they could have made a very good action scene out of it.

But they didn’t. The climactic battle was only shown in infrared satellite images with no sound except the ambient noise of a crowded room at Langley. While this should by all rights make the movie less interesting, it actually ramps up the tension quite a bit more than showing nameless characters shooting other nameless characters.

I’m starting to question the popular image of Tom Clancy as the king of dumb, throwaway military fiction. While his work is not by any stretch Great Literature, it’s certainly a lot better than most bestsellers. As far as action stories about spies and terrorists go, Clancy in his prime did it better than anybody.