"The Sum of All Fears," the fourth movie to be made from a Tom Clancy techno-thriller, is the sum of all snores until the moviemakers start blowing up Baltimore halfway through. Then the special-effects people take over for about 20 breathless minutes, as CIA agent Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck) runs through the devastated city looking horribly worried.
He should be. He has to figure out how to save the world from nuclear showdown and apocalypse without even an operational cell phone. The disaster is triggered when a neo-fascist (Alan Bates, part of a reduced Arab presence that was much more prominent in the book) purchases a nuclear warhead, lost for decades in the Golan Heights.
But should you really have to destroy Baltimore during the Super Bowl just to save a movie? "The Sum of All Fears" asks us to believe that Ryan, first played by Alec Baldwin in his 30s (in "The Hunt for Red October") and then by Harrison Ford in his 50s ("Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger"), now has become 29-year-old Affleck, with no explanation of why he's been fluctuating so wildly in age and appearance over the past two decades. Or of why he's suddenly starting out all over in the CIA, when, just nine years ago (in "Danger") he was its deputy director.
Is he really Jack Ryan Jr.? If this goes on, Haley Joel Osment may soon be playing the role. That might be an improvement. But Ryan's oddball metamorphoses are among the least senseless things we see here. Like the three other prefab blockbuster Clancy movies, "Sum" is a cautionary conservative thriller with a war games plot that's stripped of its politics and glossed up to a high, vacuous Hollywood polish. It's a movie that exists for no other reason than to make a lot of money, which it probably will.
But even as a piece of entertainment (made before Sept. 11), it's bloated. It's an implausible apocalypse without depth or resonance, a cartoon of international politics presented with no James Bond-like playfulness and with all the superficial realism money can buy. The last half-hour - the stuff of "Dr. Strangelove" done straight - shows how smart Stanley Kubrick was to make "Strangelove" a comedy. The spectacle of Ryan trying to save the world by hooking up with enigmatic Russian boss Nemerov (Ciaran Hinds), defying the stubborn U.S. president (James Cromwell) and his mulish advisors (Ron Rifkin as the crusty Secretary of State, Philip Baker Hall as the gloomy Secretary of Defense), is so absurd that it suggests straight-faced satire.
But satire of what? Clancy was a Cold War sci-fi speculator. Director Phil Alden Robinson is a dreamy counterculture fantasist ("Field of Dreams," "Sneakers") Writers Paul Attanasio ("Donnie Brasco," "Quiz Show") and Daniel Pyne ("Pacific Heights") are urban progressive crime specialists.
None of them really belong together - especially on this movie - but in some crazy way, "Sum" hangs together, perhaps because so much money has been spent on it and so many talented people hired that it can never completely collapse.
Affleck can be very good playing an arrogant modern yuppie or smart aleck - the sort of role he had in "Changing Lanes" or "Chasing Amy." But in big action movies, like "Armageddon" or "Pearl Harbor" or this, he overworks his jaw to get an earnest yet desperate look on his face, like a college party guy thrust into final exams.
Clancy's book was based on the prescient notion that so many nuclear devices were unaccounted for (in 1991, when the book was published) that we were in clear and present danger from attacks by terrorists. The idea is even more compelling today, but this movie is like a black-tie dinner where none of the food tastes good and nothing gets exciting until the waiters start lighting firecrackers on the flaming desserts. But even the possible end of the world can't save "The Sum of All Fears" from its own cinematic meltdown.
"The Sum of All Fears"
Directed by Phil Alden Robinson; written by Paul Attanasio, Daniel Pyne; photographed by John Lindley; edited by Neil Travis; production designed by Jeannine Oppewall; music by Jerry Goldsmith; produced by Mace Neufeld. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Friday, May 31. Running time: 1:59. MPAA rating: PG-13 (violence, disaster images and brief strong language).
Jack Ryan - Ben Affleck
William Cabot - Morgan Freeman
President Robert Fowler - James Cromwell
John Clark - Liev Schreiber
Richard Dressler - Alan Bates
Defense Secretary Becker - Philip Baker Hall Secretary of State Owens - Ron Rifkin
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times