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Non-Review Review: Patriot Games

Truth be told, I think Patriot Games stands as one of the best American spy movies produced in the last thirty or so years. It helps that it has, for my money, one of the great leading actors in Harrison Ford, but I also think it works because it tries to explore something of how the American espionage services work, while functioning as a thriller in its own right. It’s easy to reduce the American intelligence agencies to mere window-dressing in a conventional action movie, or to heavily politicise the organisations as part of a political drama, but I think Patriot Games works best because it’s a spy movie that actually feels like it’s a thriller about the intelligence gathering community.

Family man or Company man?

Jack Ryan’s an interesting character. I’m always reluctant to define characters as geographically specific versions of other characters, but I think that Ryan comes close to the fabled “American James Bond.” I’m not talking about any of the individual characteristics, but more about their roles as protagonists in films about spying – in fact, the individual characteristics of each character are quite distinct. I think that Ryan embodies the American character in the same way that Bond evokes Britain. Bond is, even at his most serious, a playfully ironic character, while Jack Ryan seems like he actually has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Bond is a man caught up in the pointless emptiness of it all, revelling in a glib almost-nihilist “nothing matters” perspective, while Ryan treats everything he does with the utmost care and respect.

I don’t think you could transpose Bond to America, because his character is so very British. Ignoring Roger Moore, there was always a self-awareness and an implicit acknowledgement of the ridiculous nature of it all, that it wasn’t too serious. It’s harder to do that with a major American motion picture, and I’d argue that’s why some of Tom Cruise’s more blatant attempts to create his own American version of the iconic spy haven’t really worked as well as he might have hoped (in films like Knight and Day and Mission: Impossible). Jack Ryan works because he doesn’t try to copy the obviously British touches that defined Ian Fleming’s spy, favouring seriousness and earnestness over irony and wit.

Explosive action...

So Ryan is a more stern creation than any big-screen version of Bond, a man who worries about paperwork and documentation rather than charging into any situation with little thought of consequences. Ryan is a hard-working family-man expecting his second child, while Bond is a feckless womaniser with no ties to anyone. While Jack Ryan opens and closes the movie with two impressive action sequences, demonstrating that he’s no out-of-shape desk-jockey, director Phillip Noyce wisely steers clear of the gratuitous and ridiculous setpieces that define Bond. Indeed, the movie’s one car chase ends with a child seriously hurt, as if to underscore that these action sequences aren’t to be taken lightly.

There’s a wonderful sequence in the last third of the movie, where Ryan has deduced the location of a terrorist training camp after careful research and study. Bond would parachute into the camp and act like a one man wrecking crew, while Ryan does the far more reasonable thing: he watches a live feed of a military squadron cleaning out the camp, relayed to a command and control room via satellite. Tom Clancy’s stories might occasionally veer too far into the realm of political absurdity (and I say that with a certain fondness), but Patriot Games works so well because it favours the low-key approach instead of attempting the type of large and ridiculous set pieces that define the Bond films. Noyce knows that the film isn’t ironic enough to pull them off, and wisely avoids trying.

Mister Bean...

That’s the thing about it – nothing we see feels too outlandish to be true. Nothing that we’re presented with – from a terrorist attack on the royal family to a final confrontation in a family home – feels like it couldn’t actually happen. And Noyce cleverly draws a lot of drama and thrills from that simple fact. Harrison Ford is a great leading man, but he works especially well playing a no-nonsense sort of guy, and his version of Jack Ryan just seems like he’s a very talented individual who is just doing his job. He’s not out to make a name for himself, and he doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder, he doesn’t subscribe to an ideology, he just wants to do his job and keep his family safe.

The plot of the film itself is entertaining enough, even if it’s not necessarily innovative or complex. Ryan finds himself involved in a conflict between a splinter IRA group and the British, and provokes the ire of one Northern Irish terrorist. I actually like the portrayal of the IRA in the story, and Clancy’s use of an aggressive splinter-cell does seem quite prescient, especially given the attempts by such radical groups to derail the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Ryan has made his bed...

I also respect the movie for having the courage to call out the Republican fundraising in the United States, something that was too often ignored – the notion of Irish-American charity paying for bombs and guns used to further a long and violent conflict. I don’t think there’s anything politically incorrect about the portrayal, which isn’t the most nuanced exploration of Irish political violence that you’ll ever see, but I’m still surprised that the movie went into such relative depth on the matter.

It helps that Noyce has put together a wonderful cast. In particular, Sean Bean is great as the Irish villain, and it’s almost a shame that the actor took so long to “make it” with American audiences. He also helps cement the ties to James Bond by having played one of the better Bond villains. It’s also great to see Richard Harris as a Sinn Féin spokesperson, along with James Earl Jones and Samuel L. Jackson and James Fox among others. Also, that is a very young Thora Birch in the image above.

The kid better cop himself on...

If there is one problem with Noyce’s film, it’s the rather convenient ending, which is fairly easy to spot from a mile off as the plotlines converge. It’s not a fatal problem, but it does feel almost formulaic, as if the script had come within thirty pages of the end and needed to try to straighten everything out before the words “fade out” appeared. I actually much prefer the political wrangling that we’d see in Clear and Present Danger, rather than this excuse to shoe-horn in a big action sequence to close the film. Still, it’s an entertaining little thriller.

Being honest, I really like the Jack Ryan films – but I especially like the two Harrison Ford films in the middle. I think they just work exceedingly well as American spy thrillers, rather than serving as action movies with espionage trappings. They aren’t exceptional examples of nineties cinema, but they’re pretty entertaining and well worth a look.

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2 Responses

  1. “Clear and Present Danger” really couldn’t live up to “Patriot Games” but either Ford film is infinitely better than Affleck in “Sum of All Fears.”

    “Hunt for Red October” is also a great standalone Ryan screen adventure.

    • I agree on all counts. I actually like Hunt for Red October less than most, but it’s still an awesome little film.

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