`Patriot Games' Plays With Serious Subjects
NEW YORK — `PATRIOT Games" is billed as a sequel to "The Hunt for Red October," but you won't find any submarines in the new picture, and Alec Baldwin is nowhere in sight. It seems he and Paramount Pictures couldn't agree on a deal, so the studio recruited Harrison Ford to step in as Jack Ryan, the secret-agent hero who wants nothing more in his latest story than to live a quiet life as a family man and history professor.
As if that would make for a slam-bang Hollywood adventure. Jack's domestic bliss is obviously doomed, and sure enough, the credits have barely ended before he's faced with a terrorist scheme that draws him back into the CIA and the world of international intrigue.
The movie's action ranges from Washington to Ireland to northern Africa, swinging from high-tech heroics to thudding violence and back again. It's likely to make plenty of money for Paramount and all concerned, and Mr. Ford gives a thoughtful performance in the all-important leading role. But the picture doesn't live up to his intelligence, and I found it more wearing than exciting after a while.
A major challenge faced by the makers of "Patriot Games" was to find a substitute for the cold-war heroics that gave "The Hunt for Red October" its main reason for existing. The cold war is over - in fact, "Red October" itself seemed slightly out-of-date when it opened two years ago - and communism is no longer the all-purpose villain it used to be.
Recognizing this, "Patriot Games" shifts over to the wave of ethnic and religious tension that now occupies real-life headlines once reserved for Evil Empire machinations.
The terrorists of the story are Irish extremists - apparently connected with the Irish Republican Army, but so evil that the IRA turns against them. Ryan stumbles across an assassination plot they've cooked up, and incurs the wrath of their nastiest member, who then threatens Ryan's family. Soon our hero is locked in struggle with them, helped by all the resources the CIA has to offer.
The quality I like best about "Patriot Games" is the moody, even melancholy atmosphere it often has. You get a vivid sense that solving the movie's mysteries is hard work for Jack, and that he doesn't enjoy having to defend his wife and daughter from vicious thugs.
The quality I like least about the movie is its faith in the ultimate rightness of high-tech adventurism and warfare. A key scene of the story takes place in a CIA stronghold where we watch the demolition of an enemy camp via long-distance video transmission. It's very reminiscent of watching the Persian Gulf war on television - nothing looks quite real, and there's absolutely no sense of horrific pain and bloodshed.
This raises important questions about the morality of making government-sponsored violence appear sanitized and "surgical" in its effects. Equally to the point, it's clear in the movie that this might not be the right camp that's being destroyed, but that the risk (to other people's lives) is justified because the CIA says it is. Maybe so, but the movie would be deeper and smarter if it explored such issues, instead of simply milking them for dramatic purposes.
Also disappointing is the movie's treatment of women. There are two strong women in the story: Jack's wife, who's a brilliant eye surgeon as well as an excellent mother, and an Irish militant who's involved with Jack's enemies. In the worst tradition of tokenism, the screenplay sketches them as tantalizing characters but then fails to give them interesting things to do or say.
Phillip Noyce, an Australian director with some interesting films to his credit, keeps the action moving at a snappy pace. But he can't defeat the doldrums that eventually overcome the screenplay, written by W. Peter Iliff and Donald Stewart from Tom Clancy's novel. Although it may find the large audience it seeks, "Patriot Games" has nothing of lasting value to offer, and its treatment of terrorism does little justice to the seriousness of that subject.