The Tom Clancy Chronicles:
PATRIOT GAMES (1992)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Anne Archer, Sean Bean, Richard Harris, James Earl Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, and Literal Child Thora Birch (like, it is WEIRD)
Directed by: Phillip Noyce
Written by: W. Peter Iliff and Donald E. Stewart
Based on the Novel: PATRIOT GAMES by Tom Clancy
What do you get when you mix a retired C.I.A. officer, a young-as-all-hell Sean Bean, and seething hatred of the monarchy? 1992’s Patriot Games! that’s what! AND the second installment of the Tom Clancy Chronicles! One man’s tireless quest to explain a fandom of a much, much, MUCH older man. Welcome back, squaddies.
This time around we are looking at Harrison Ford’s first outing as the infamous “Red State James Bond” and director Phillip Noyce’s first crack at the material from behind the camera. While this outing’s plot is a big ol’ bowl of weak soup, this film, as a Ryan adaptation, gets a lot right about the reluctant action hero and his supporting cast. While at the same time injecting the macho, gunplay heavy tone of mid-90s action movies into the mixture. It is an odd duck indeed, but a somewhat interesting one. Let’s dive in shall we. Sean Bean’s mullet isn’t going to write about itself.
SO, Patriot Games. Full disclosure, this is one movie and novel that I have the least experience with. I was always somewhat aware of the film though. I feel like I remember it playing on that bastion of cable TV cinema Encore a lot. The only sequence to truly ring any bells was the opening’s botched assassination attempt of a British Lord. I also somewhat remember them doing an episode of their in-house director spotlight show on director Phillip Noyce, who was kinda all over the 90s even beyond the two Jack Ryan films he did.
Going into this I was straight up SHOOK when Amazon’s X-Ray told me that he directed not only The Saint (a true cult fave of mine) but ALSO The Bone Collector!, a film which kicked off Pre-Teen Justin’s obsession with crime procedurals (and probably planted the seed for my budding bisexuality thanks to that sweet Denzel/Jolie combo).
Instantly Noyce and screenwriting team W. Peter Iliff and Donald E. Stewart set this entry apart from the slick and clinically precise Hunt for Red October. We again open on Jack’s family, this time played by Lady of the Eighties Anne Archer and the youngest Thora Birch I have ever seen in a movie. But instead of shuffling them off stage in the early moments, much of this film’s (and novel’s) plot directly involves them. After thwarting an assassination attempt of some rando British royals by dreamy Irish Nationalist Sean Miller (Sean Bean, rocking some serious locks) and his band of psychos, a retired Jack Ryan must wade back into espionage in order to protect his family.
Stuff involving Ryan’s family can kinda get dicey in the novels. Mainly because it gets in the way of Clancy’s military tech porn, but here it really works well. Anne Archer’s Cathy is an amazing example of steely, 90s female leads and her natural rapport with Harrison Ford is a real boon for the movie. Not to mention one to the movie’s adaption of Jack. I talked a little in the first part that humanizing details always do Jack a world of good in the movies and Patriot Games is bloody chocked full of them. Including a really charming running joke about Jack trying to keep his daughter from finding out that her original goldfishes died when they were in London by getting some of his staffers at the Naval College to replace them. Character is always king in my book and this movie really has plenty of it.
And speaking of character, Harrison Ford’s first turn as Ryan is really something special. As a retired, older Jack, the part really makes great use of Ford’s natural charm and everyman capabilities, even during the action sequences, which are all fairly low-key, character rooted affairs aside from the ending finale boat chase because THE NINETIES! Like, for example, there is a moment in this movie where Jack is once again approached by Admiral James Greer (a returning James Earl Jones, one of the only common elements in these original films) and asked to return to the CIA’s service in order to track down Miller.
Though he is concerned for his family, he is worried about something else; how the investigation will cut into his Naval Academy teaching and lecture writing. It is a perfect Jack Ryan moment and one that really acknowledges Jack’s status as more intellectual hero, despite the novels’ tendency to push him into fist-fighting Mary Sue territory.
But this entry can’t coast just on character alone, unfortunately. Having not read the novel (though it is ON THE LIST, squad) I can’t really speak to how fleshed out the villains and their motivations are, but here in the movie, it is kinda murky. We get a bit of lip service about how Miller and his team are fed up with the I.R.A’s lack of more “extreme” measures and some window dressing about Sean’s da being killed in the 70s, but that is really about it. The movie overall really suffers from this scant exposition. There is a real “eat the rich” feel to it, which if made more explicit would have been pretty badass and relatable, but it never really fully commits. Once Miller really sets his sights on Ryan and his family, the action becomes all the more personal, but even that doesn’t really elevate it much.
The weird tonal shifts the movie employs also kind of drag it down. One minute it is like a tense family drama about revenge and the pull between duty and family. And then the next it is a real macho, gun show, indulging in the senseless gunplay of the era and trying to justify it as Ryan being a “man pushed too far”.
This stuff runs contrary to the script’s take on Jack, but toes the line that the books did sometimes.. It is real…kill-y for lack of a better term and this killiness (trademarked) undercuts the strong family element at the core of the movie. Not even the luminous Polly Walker, playing Miller’s hard-as-nails female fellow terrorist, and Bean’s consistent audition to be 1992’s Banshee from the X-Men can make it pop so it kinda just lays flat for much of the back half of the film. The bar was set so high with Red October it is only natural that the next one was to dip in quality.
Verdict: Watch It (But Don’t Expect to Love It. I Certainly Didn’t.)
While Patriot Games stands tall as a great take on Ryan and his family and includes some fun easter eggs for book fans (mainly an impossibly young Samuel L. Jackson as Ryan’s friend and sometimes field asset Robby Jackson), the movie doesn’t reach the precise and technically sound entertainment of the first Jack Ryan adaptation. That isn’t to say it isn’t without skill or merit. It’s got fucking Richard Harris in it, after all. It’s just…kinda boring frankly and a real product of its time so take from that what you will.
If anything it has spurred me to really get on the book because I have heard that it was one of the best, despite the movie kinda throwing a wet, 90’s afghan blanket on my excitement for it. If anything it is a real showcase of Harrison Ford’s power and watchability as a leading man, but beyond that and a great Cathy that is really all this entry brings to the table. It is available on Amazon Prime and all manner of other physical formats, including a Wal-Mart three-pack with this, Red October, and next installment’s focus.
NEXT OBJECTIVE: 1994’s Clear and Present Danger!. A movie in which Jack Ryan fights DRUGS with the help of his friend, infamous C.I.A. button man and Jack’s “dark mirror” John Clark (Willem Defoe)!