The Sum Of All Fears

Surprisingly intelligent nuke thriller from the pen of Tom Clancy.

Released in 2002, certified UK-12. Reviewed on 07 Apr 2003 by Craig Eastman
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Jack Ryan seems to be on a bungee cord of youth. Having been portrayed by two other actors previously (Alec Baldwin in The Hunt For Red October and Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger), Tom Clancy's CIA agent now loses thirty years of wrinkles and takes on the guise of one Ben Lopez. Sorry, I meant Affleck. Somewhat bizarrely, despite being set in present times, The Sum Of All Fears sees Ryan at the start of his career in intelligence, but if you can ignore this inconsistency (and let's face it, neither of the previous three films are advocates of continuity) you will find an intelligent and thoughtful thriller that performs above expectation.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Sum Of All Fears is that despite it's release so soon after 9/11 it makes few concessions plotwise to the supposed wave of "new Hollywood sensitivity" we were told to expect. When the Russian premier kicks the bucket, he is succeeded by President Nemerov (Ciar?n Hinds), a man about whom the West knows little. Fears of a new Cold War are kindled as Nemerov takes a hard stance against Chechnya, and it is discovered that three eminent Russian nuclear scientists have gone AWOL, putting the two superpowers in an awkward stand-off.

It soon transpires that the scientists are working to re-activate an old Iranian nuclear warhead lost in a plane crash during the Egyptian/Syrian military action against that country in the 70's, and latterly snapped up by international arms dealer Olson (Colm Feore). Olson is in cahoots with an international terrorist faction who in the book were predominantly middle-eastern, but here are slightly more tactfully portrayed as neo-Nazis, thus skirting any potential offence towards Arabs. The un-named group plan to detonate the device on United States soil, capitalising on the tension between the two superpowers in a bid to frame Russia and have the two spiral towards World War 3. Can Jack unmask the real villains behind the scheme in time, or will the world be once again at war? Hang on to your armchair...

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For the most part, The Sum Of All Fears trundles along as your average political race-against-time thriller kind of deal. The politically nai?ve Ryan, fresh-faced and unaware of the need to wear a suit, is consulted as to his opinion of the new Russian President, and soon finds himself dragged along on a weapons inspection with Cabot and his cronies. Out of his depth and too outspoken in his opinions, Ryan is alone in assuming Nemerov is not the man behind the threat; cue a long and hard battle to convince the world of the true nature of the nefarious plot.

The cast, some carrying on their role from previous Ryan films, are all perfectly adequate, and Morgan Freeman as CIA Director William Cabot is particularly average in the kind of role he seems alarmingly reliant on these days. What sets the movie apart (and what pissed the Americans off) is that it sends a clear wake-up call to America that no matter how much it portrays itself as righteous peace-keeper, all those dodgy back-door arms deals will one day come back and bite it squarely on the ass. The nuclear device is discovered to be an American bomb sold to the Israelis, and the ultimate irony is only finally realised when the terrorists succeed in detonating it.

It's a shocking moment, and fortunately director Phil Alden Robinson sees fit to wake from the autopilot slumber he's been operating on for the first hour to deliver a stark and harrowing portrayal of the event. Although we do not actually witness the detonation, we see the immediate effects thereafter; helicopters being knocked out of the sky, cars swept from roadways, and civilians literally blown away by the shockwave. Particularly effective is Ryan's hazy exit from a crashed helicopter where the soundtrack is silenced and the surrounding area shrouded in clouds of dust, Affleck looking up to see the blooming mushroom cloud just miles away.

The inclusion of such a moment is both daring and completely un-American; a clear message, if it were needed after 9/11, that the blissfully nai?ve public should realise how real the possibility of such an action is in these times of instability. Hats off to both Robinson and Paramount for having the brass balls to stand by their creation after so many had speculated it would have to be canned.

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The Sum Of All Fears' conviction ultimately raises it above standard thriller fare and delivers one of the most intelligent and tense mainstream thrillers for a while. The ensuing race against time to prevent mutual destruction is a suitably engrossing affair, and it's fair to say the increase in pace benefits the movie greatly, providing a suitable pay-off to the build up of events earlier in the picture.

Many will no doubt find Affleck less palatable in the role than Ford or even Baldwin may have been, but this reviewer for one finds he suits the picture well. My only gripe is that in favour of acknowledging the loss of continuity in the series, the producers might as well have dropped the name Ryan, for all the difference it would make. Still, many of the viewers who will see this movie might well have done so because of Affleck's inclusion, and as such might not be aware of Ryan's previous exploits, so I guess it matters little either way. Suffice to say the lad does well, if not exceptionally well, in his role.

Alden Robinson directs with a sure hand, mercifully picking up the pace of the first half and rescuing the film from mediocrity, and his cast perform as well as can be expected given the material with which they're provided. If you like your thrillers thoughtful, but also appreciate the advantages of a bigger budget, you could do a hell of a lot worse than The Sum Of All Fears. It has bangs, bombs, tension, thrills, thoughtfulness, courage and conviction, which is a lot more than can be said of many of it's stablemates. Oh, and the ladies will love it for Lopez. Sorry, I meant Affleck.

If I absolutely had to meter this movie, say perhaps because the Yanks threatened to drop a laser-guided bomb on my foot, then I'd award it 4 out of 5 Hoto Shotos.

DVD notes:- Alarmingly sparse for such a high-profile film, Paramount show their usual apathy for including extras. The usual trailer is accompanied by some very short and very bland FX analyses detailing some of the films' set-piece moments.

Also included are two commentaries; the first by director Phil Alden Robinson and his cinematographer, whilst the second is by Clancy himself. Robinson's is a largely boring affair of little interest, but Clancy's is a joy. He obviously has some contempt for the studio system, lamenting their insistence on changing the nature of the terrorist group from Arabic extremists to Neo-Nazis. He also joyfully points out every technical inconsistency throughout the entire running time, highlighting everything down to the wrong type of bomb being used by aircraft.

Not worth the price of entry alone, but certainly an unexpectedly fun accompaniment to a great film. Paramount really need to get their act together, however. Sixteen quid is not a reasonable price for this kind of package.

Phil Alden Robinson
Cast list:
Ben Affleck (Jack Lopez...sorry, Ryan)
Morgan Freeman (DCI William Cabot)
James Cromwell (President Fowler)