IT has been widely reported that President Clinton is taking more criticism, from more people, on more positions along the political spectrum, than any president in a long time. With this national mood, it's not surprising that the TV promos for Harrison Ford's new movie, ``Clear and Present Danger,'' show a fictional United States president who's just been ``barked at'' by our hero. There comes a time, the ads suggest, when bashing the chief executive is every patriot's duty. See the movie, and join the fun.
Interestingly, the President Bennett we meet in ``Clear and Present Danger'' turns out to resemble Ronald Reagan during the Iran-contra scandal more than Clinton during his current challenges. He's up to his neck in international adventures, and ``deniability'' has become his watchword.
Bennett wants direct violent action against the Colombian drug cartel that has recruited, corrupted, and murdered one of his old friends. He can't order a secret war without consulting Congress, and they'd never have the gumption to approve.
But his national security adviser knows what the boss's heart desires, and without the president having to say a direct word, the Colombian hills are soon crawling with American commandos, led by a former US agent who'd never cancel a bombing run just because children were spotted in the impact zone.
It's a nasty business, and it would be nastier still if Jack Ryan weren't on the scene. Fresh from various Tom Clancy novels and Hollywood films, he's a dashing but unlikely good guy - generally soft-spoken, frequently nervous, and so squeaky clean that his CIA buddies find him something of a wimp.
When his high-ranking supervisor becomes ill, he finds himself promoted from lowly analyst to powerful deputy director of intelligence, a privileged but dangerous position. Scorning his ``Boy Scout'' mentality, the national security adviser and his conspiratorial colleagues leave Ryan ignorant of their presidential escapade south of the equator. But we know he'll discover it and that sparks will immediately fly.
The previous Jack Ryan movies, ``The Hunt for Red October'' and ``Patriot Games,'' struck me as dry, mechanical entertainments that went through their paces with little zest or imagination. ``Clear and Present Danger'' is more involving, largely because it raises a handful of issues too provocative for the picture's big-budget action scenes to submerge completely. Should the war on drugs really be a war? Is oversight by Congress a needed check on executive power, or a bothersome hindrance to getting things done? Are the US military and intelligence machines proud instruments of the American way, or unfortunate necessities capable of great destructiveness if steered by the wrong hands?
The movie doesn't delve very deeply into these questions. But at least it brings them up and lets them resonate behind the derring-do of the main story, providing food for thought when the heroics start to sag or lapse into pure contrivance - which happens regrettably often, especially when Ryan finds himself in some impossibly hazardous position that only a major dose of plot-manipulation can resolve.
For an example, check the rocket-attack-on-motorcade scene, where you can almost see the director's hand reach down and shield our hero from the certain death that wipes out his companions. It's as hokey as action sequences get - but then, lots of explosions are a must for this summer's movies, and this episode puts the picture well over its quota.
Ford does a credible job in his second go-round as Jack Ryan, following the dreary ``Patriot Games,'' and James Earl Jones is equally persuasive in his third appearance (and last, since the character dies this time) as Ryan's dignified CIA boss. A sun-tanned Willem Dafoe is smartly sinister as the renegade CIA operative in Colombia, and Donald Moffat gives the president a suitable mixture of pride, pragmatism, and pretentiousness. Harris Yulin and Henry Czerny are just right as self-righteous government villains.
Unfortunately, only two women have a significant presence in this mostly male adventure, and neither fares very well with her underwritten part: Anne Archer as Ryan's wife, a successful physician whose tiny role says more about Hollywood tokenism than female professionalism, and Ann Magnuson as a government secretary who enters the plot only to die in its nastiest, most gratuitous murder.
Donald Stewart, Steven Zaillian, and John Milius did the adaptation of Clancy's bestseller - an interesting combination of screenwriters, since Stewart and Zaillian have previously done well with somewhat progressive pictures (the excellent ``Missing'' and ``Schindler's List,'' respectively) while Milius has crafted such macho musclefests as ``Red Dawn'' and ``Conan the Barbarian'' during his checkered career.
The vivid cinematography is by Donald M. McAlpine, and James Horner composed the reasonably effective score. The director is Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce, who had nowhere to go but up after ``Sliver,'' and has neatly resuscitated his reputation.
* The film has a PG-13 rating. It contains some vulgar language and a good deal of violence.