'The Sum of All Fears'

Ben Affleck takes over the role of CIA ace Jack Ryan from Harrison Ford in the latest entry in the Tom Clancy sweepstakes, "The Sum of All Fears." (MARK FELLMAN)

In the wake of Sept. 11, "The Sum of All Fears" could hardly be more timely or frightening in its depiction of the world's vulnerability to weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists. This crackling, if overly complicated, version of the Tom Clancy action-political thriller imagines what could happen if a nuclear warhead threatened an American city--a scenario that seems less like fiction every day.

The film opens during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when Israel dispatches a plane carrying an atom bomb in case its ground forces are overrun by Egypt and Syria. The jet, however, is downed in the Golan Heights, its atom bomb ejects and remains hidden by shifting sands in the desert, where it is uncovered by scavengers 29 years later and sold to a Damascus-based South African arms merchant.

That's all we're told by Clancy adaptors Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne, who don't make it clear why this all matters until the film is about half over. Until then it jumps all over the Eastern seaboard of America, Western Europe, Russia and the Middle East; it's best to resist the urge to connect the dots in this hard-to-follow film and trust that all will become clear in good time. The effect of this approach does not evoke ambiguity as much as it does just plain obscurity. "The Sum of All Fears" could have been lots scarier lots earlier with just a soupcon of clarity; the all-too-human temptation to try to figure out what's going on can become truly distracting.

As with so many films with ultra-complicated plots, the story is simple at heart, so much so in this instance that it's hard to discuss without giving everything away. Let's just say that America and Russia have been brought to the brink of nuclear war, but CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck) seems to be the only man in the universe who is either willing or able to consider the possibility that some evil individual is playing the two major nuclear powers against each other. This conviction propels Ryan out of the office and into the realm of the action hero who ends up single-handedly having to save civilization--and with only an hour to do it.

When the many parts of "The Sum of All Fears" start falling into place under Phil Alden Robinson's trenchant direction, it's possible to begin to appreciate how skillfully the film plays Ryan's thriller heroics against the horrific predicament the presidents of the U.S. and Russia (James Cromwell and Ciaran Hinds, respectively) find themselves in. They must show courage and judgment under the greatest pressure imaginable yet cannot divorce themselves from feelings of pride and machismo. Hinds' President Nemerov has his clutch of advisors, to be sure, but they're more deferential than their American counterparts; indeed, Cromwell's President Fowler is thrust into an immediate tug-of-war between his hawkish Secretary of Defense (Philip Baker Hall) and his dovish Secretary of State (Ron Rifkin).

In the film's sharp ensemble cast, Affleck and Morgan Freeman as director of the CIA are indubitably its stars. Although a bit bland in comparison to Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, who have also played Jack Ryan in films (Affleck's Ryan is considerably younger and less accomplished), Affleck has the intelligence and athleticism to carry off the singularly unpretentious and fiercely diligent hero.

Freeman's character has such shrewdness, self-discipline and humanity it's too bad he isn't running the CIA for real. Scene-stealing Liev Schreiber's CIA operative is breathtakingly fearless, resourceful and witty as well; Alan Bates is a neo-Fascist villain with a terrifying superiority complex and deep pockets; and Bridget Moynahan is a beautiful young doctor who is falling in love with Ryan without knowing what he really does.

"The Sum of All Fears" has vast scope, unflagging energy, a rousing Jerry Goldsmith score and a horrendous disaster sequence that conveys much in discreet fashion in keeping with post-Sept. 11 sensibilities yet is needlessly evasive in telling us the precise extent of its magnitude. "The Sum of All Fears" is absorbing and disturbing--perhaps more disturbing than originally intended--but a little clarity would have gone a long way.

MPAA rating: PG-13, for violence, disaster images and brief strong language. Times guidelines: disturbing in its depiction of the detonation of a nuclear device though not overly graphic; too intense for younger audiences.

'The Sum of All Fears'

Ben Affleck...Jack Ryan

Morgan Freeman...William Cabot

James Cromwell...President Fowler

Ciaran Hinds...President Nemerov

Liev Schreiber...John Clark

Alan Bates...Richard Dressler

Bridget Moynahan...Dr. Cathy Muller

A Paramount Pictures presentation. Director Phil Alden Robinson. Producer Mace Neufeld. Executive producers Stratton Leopold, Tom Clancy. Screenplay Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne; based on the novel by Clancy. Cinematographer John Lindley. Editor Neil Travis. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Costumes Marie-Sylvie Deveau. Visual effects supervisor Glenn Neufeld. Production designer Jeannine C. Oppewall. Art directors Martin Gendron, Isabelle Guay, Michele Laliberte. Set decorator Cindy Carr. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.

In general release.