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'Sum of All Fears'

'Sum of All Fears' takes Clancy hero 30 years into the past with muddled success

Friday, May 31, 2002

By Ron Weiskind Post-Gazette Movie Editor

OK, let's get the obvious joke (stolen from a co-worker) out of the way. The fate of the world resting in the hands of Ben Affleck is the sum of all my fears.

'The Sum Of All Fears'

RATING: PG-13 for violence, disaster images and brief strong language.

PLAYERS: Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman, James Cromwell, Liev Schreiber.

DIRECTOR: Phil Alden Robinson.

WEB SITE: www.sumofallfears



Affleck is the new and supposedly improved version of author Tom Clancy's hero Jack Ryan. We last saw Ryan in the 1994 flick "Clear and Present Danger," in which he was portrayed by Harrison Ford and held the title of acting deputy director of the CIA.

Now he's 30 years younger, has a girlfriend instead of the wife and child so crucial to the plot of "Patriot Games" and is a CIA newbie, an analyst working amid a sea of desks.

But the fact that he doesn't know what he's doing through much of the film works to Affleck's advantage. If you're going to cast a frat boy in the role, then write the role for a frat boy. Just stop short of having him spill beer on the president (James Cromwell).

Ryan may be young in this film, but he has one area of expertise that has suddenly become vitally important -- Alexander Nemerov (Ciaran Hinds), who has just ascended to the Russian presidency after the sudden death of his predecessor.

Conventional wisdom says Nemerov is a loose cannon who could go off at any time, but Ryan thinks otherwise. His protestations fall on deaf ears after Chechnya is attacked with chemical weapons.

But that's just for starters. It turns out a terrorist group in expensive suits is trying to ratchet up tensions between America and Russia while it smuggles a nuclear weapon into the United States, which it plans to detonate at the Super Bowl in Baltimore. Affleck and his CIA colleagues, led by director William Cabot (Morgan Freeman), have to figure out what's going on and try to stop it before the unthinkable happens.

John Frankenheimer effectively used a similar plot in the 1977 thriller "Black Sunday." Most of the suspense in that movie occurred during the big game. "The Sum of All Fears" spends most of its time with what happens beforehand -- the difficulty of getting correct information and figuring out what it all means, the bickering among officials as emotions threaten to overtake reason.

One of the things I liked best about the movie is the notion that, for all of our spy satellites and intelligence sources and fancy technology, a lot of things can happen in places where we can't see them or don't know to look for them.

Director Phil Alden Robinson ("Field of Dreams") introduces each new location by showing us a satellite photograph of the city -- abstract, remote, an image that lets you see a target but not the people who live there. But the CIA operatives also can't discern that a nuclear weapon has been lost and then found, that it is being disguised as a more common object and how it is entering the country.

That's also how many analysts think real-life terrorists will try to attack us next, which makes it even more scary. The movie contains a few strong jolts, as it turns out.

It takes some good old legwork by Ryan and that other Clancy stalwart, John Clark (Liev Schreiber), to begin putting the pieces together. Affleck is most believable in these action scenes, especially because the movie doesn't try to make him a superhero but acknowledges that he's inexperienced at this kind of thing and reluctant to do it.

On the other hand, the terrorists come off as corny and contrived. In trying not to offend any nation or nationality, screenwriters Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne fall back on the one set of villains that won't raise any hackles. Unfortunately, that makes them seem ridiculously anachronistic.

There also are various problems with the ending -- a hair-trigger scenario requiring the men in charge to believe the one person with the least credibility, followed by a wind-down scene that is hopelessly trite.

Not everything in "The Sum of All Fears" adds up, but we can be excused for wishing that it felt more like fiction.

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