Patriot Games - NY Times Review

Last Update: 06 Oct 2007

 
PATRIOT GAMES
Terror Stalks Across the Atlantic To Prey on an America Family
by Janet Maslin
New York Times
June 5, 1992


The Queen of England owes a debt of gratitude to the makers of Patriot Games,
the sleek film adaptation of Tom Clancy's best-selling paranoid thriller. Their
version of this story is so intelligently streamlined that it has the good
grace to leave the Queen alone.

In Mr. Clancy's original, which revolves around a plot against the Prince of
Wales and his young family, the heroic ex-C.I.A. agent Jack Ryan foils the
attackers and becomes an instant celebrity on English television. For his
trouble, he is not only knighted but also thanked ad nauseam by Her Majesty. So
the Queen visits Jack's bedside and makes Jack and Cathy Ryan house guests at
Buckingham Palace, gushing about the adorableness of the couple's little
daughter. Sally. The Queen's husband treats Jack like a new chum. Their son,
the Prince, listens gratefully to Jack's friendly advice about how to solve his
marital problems and how to be more of a man. "We must see more of each other,"
the Prince declares. By the end of the novel, Jack has saved the Prince yet
again and feels comfortable addressing him as "pal."

It is some measure of this film's good sense and relative probity that one
generic royal cousin (played wryly by James Fox) has now been substituted for
the book's improbable lineup of Ryan admirers. Much small talk and hubris has
been excised from Patriot Games, leaving just the bare bones of Mr. Clancy's
political tug of war. On one side stand Jack, the sanctity of the American
family and the remarkable ability of the C.I.A. to influence international
events with the help of highest-tech surveillance gimmickry. On the other stand
Irish terrorists who, in the absence of the kinds of cold war villains who
populated Mr. Clancy's Hunt for Red October, are the author's best exemplars of
the forces of anarchy and evil. Or at least they'll have to do.

Unlike the heartier Hunt for Red October, which was directed by John McTiernan,
Patriot Games takes a pensive, moody view of the intrigue in which Jack becomes
embroiled. As directed by Phillip Noyce, an Australian, it has more in common
with Mr. Noyce's meticulous, brooding thriller Dead Calm than with the earlier
Clancy-based spy story. Mr. Noyce's approach is quite elegant (thanks in large
part to Donald M. McAlpine's decorous cinematography and James Horner's
mournfully lovely score), even if that sometimes seems peculiar in light of his
material. The cool, sophisticated staging of a car chase through rush-hour
traffic amounts to a cinematic oxymoron.

Patriot Games delivers the best possible version of a tale that boils down to
nothing but gamesmanship, as its title implies. Except for a minor casting
problem on the home front (Anne Archer, as Cathy, has become much too familiar
in the role of the warm, ruefully sexy spouse), it concentrates on the string
of elaborately staged ambushes that are this story's main attraction. For all
its polish and its apparent global span, the film never really moves beyond the
hollow question of whether the Ryan family will survive each new threat to life
and limb. "You get him, Jack," snaps the once-serene Cathy, after an Irish
terrorist makes a threatening call to the Ryan home. "I don't care what you
have to do - just get him."

From the attempted strike at the royals near Buckingham Palace to a two-pronged
attack on the Ryans after they return to Maryland, the film moves chillingly
toward one last, watery showdown that recalls the ending of Martin Scorsese's
recent Cape Fear. Lodged somewhere in mid-story is a remarkable and emblematic
sequence in which coffee-drinking C.I.A. analysts, dressed in business suits,
stand quietly watching abstract computer images. The eerily beautiful scenes
shown on the monitor represent the flaming destruction of a terrorist training
camp halfway around the world.

Despite its many violent episodes, the film remains bloodless. Perhaps that can
be traced to Mr. Clancy's fascination with technology, and to his way of
treating human characters only slightly less methodically than he treats
machines. The Ryans are so generically happy, and the terrorists so generically
bad, that it's a wonder Mr. Noyce can create any real tension or surprise. But
he has cast the villainous roles particularly well; the fierce-looking Sean
Bean is outstandingly good as Ryan's main antagonist, and Patrick Bergen brings
the right air of calculation to the terrorist mastermind he plays. Several of
the film's main sequences, like an encounter between Mr. Bean's Sean Miller and
David Threlfall as the police inspector who has been his captor, derive their
horror from the looks of pure loathing that these terrorists bestow upon their
prey.

Mr. Ford's restrained performance is just right for this chilly atmosphere, and
he even brings some earnestness to the happy-family scenes, which are otherwise
saccharine. He makes a more plausible Jack Ryan than Alec Baldwin did in the
earlier film, partly because this screenplay (by W. Peter Iliff and Donald
Stewart) is less obsessed with technical jargon and high-tech toys. The devices
that are used here -- an antennalike video camera that can creep under closed
doors to do its spying, or the satellite technology that can scan a terrorist
training camp from somewhere in space -- are gratifyingly unobtrusive. One
exception is the infrared goggles that are critical to the story's final
showdown, and wind up recalling The Silence of the Lambs.

Patriot Games can be as readily watched for its subtext as for its main events.
From the sign marking Hanover Street (one of Mr. Ford's earlier credits) to the
portrait of John F. Kennedy on the wall at C.I.A. headquarters, marginalia
often takes on unexpected prominence. One bit of trivia worth noting is that
the authentic look of the Ryans' waterfront homestead on Chesapeake Bay was
achieved only by digging up and later replanting 17 palm trees. This visual
embodiment of the Ryans' wholesome, traditional values is quite synthetic, and
was shot in California.

 

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