22 January 2010

Patriot Games

Patriot Games Better Today

By Kristin Battestella

Although I have the DVD, I can’t help but tune in every time Patriot Games comes on cable. The 1992 action thriller from Tom Clancy’s book is just as awesome today as it was then.

After averting a radical IRA terrorist faction’s attack on royal cousin and Northern Ireland Secretary Lord Holmes (James Fox, A Passage to India), former CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) returns to Maryland with his pregnant wife Kathy (Anne Archer) and daughter Sally (Thora Birch). Unfortunately, vengeful Ulster terrorist Sean Miller (Sean Bean) escapes from prison and plots the destruction of the Ryan Family. Jack returns to the CIA, helping Admiral Greer (James Earl Jones) find Miller and his compatriots Kevin O’Donnell (Patrick Bergen) and Annette (Polly Walker). When his family is gravely threatened again, Ryan must take matters into his own hands and stop Miller once and for all.

I do have a few issues with Patriot Games, so I’ll just get them out of the way first. Sometimes 1992 doesn’t seem so long ago to me-but when you see the almost eighties looking styles here, we do remember this really was almost twenty years ago. Kathy Ryan’s clothes and style might have been posh at the time, but now…not so much. Some of the action sequences are also a little dated in choreography. It’s not that Patriot Games is small scale or ill paced by any means. We’ve just been treated to a lot more effects laden and much more complex and violent films in recent years. This is an action film, but there’s a lot of thought, character, and emotion behind it. Strange to say, but sometimes that seriousness isn’t what a viewer wants if they’re looking for mindless, desensitizing action.

Director Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm, The Bone Collector) and screenwriters W. Peter Iliff (Point Break, Varsity Blues) and Donald Stewart (The Hunt for Red October, Clear and Present Danger) keep the best of Clancy and craft a fine blend of suspense and family drama. There aren’t many great one liners here, but the script is memorable and believable. Despite the extreme and sometimes improbable circumstances in Patriot Games, we believe that not only could this happen to the Ryans, but to any one of us. Even in the big action numbers, the camera is tight on the people involved. We feel the emotion whether things are rough and tumble or sad and somber.

But of course, who doesn’t love Harrison Ford? He is perhaps the best actor of this generation, and Ford shows his clout in Patriot Games. Instead of the bravado hero, we meet an older, worn family man. He’s a retired Dad-well off perhaps, but just like the rest of us in most ways. Jack Ryan is not a superhero. Ryan messes up; his family’s life is taken out of his control. Ford is able to deliver the sad eyes and tears when needed, but we know not to push a man to defend his castle. When Ford says, “I will fucking destroy you.” we believe the declaration as easy as we believe that the only thing in life that is “100% for certain” is his daughter’s love.

Before The Lord of the Rings, if Americans knew who Sean Bean was, they knew because of Patriot Games. His intense stare and quiet revenge boil over through villainous looks and actions-Bean only speaks about ten times in the picture. Even though that little dialogue is creepy, too, the silent intensity makes Miller’s vengeance-especially in comparison with Harrison Ford. Prior to Patriot Games, Ford (Do I really need to infer on Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Witness, Blade Runner and all that?) was the action hero with great toys and quick quips. He starts out the funny, elder family man; but as the film progress, Ford’s fear for his family forces him into equally brooding and silent defense. It’s perfectly acceptable for us to hate the silent killer Miller, but we root for family man Ryan to take matters into his own hands. What’s the difference between Miller’s revenge for his brother and Ryan’s defense of his family? Were the situation reversed, would we feel different? Although they aren’t onscreen together often, Bean and Ford make us love and love to hate their characters. You don’t find this character complexity and intelligence in just any action flick. This depth keeps Patriot Games great up against more recent, flashy action yarns.

This is why American’s who know who Sean Bean is actually really hate him. You can’t just shoot up Harrison Ford’s onscreen family and expect our love. However, Noyce smartly uses the evils of Miller to his advantage. We don’t see any of Miller’s kill shots-the camera is always tight and up close on Bean’s face, showing us the cold joy he shares in murder. Miller even smiles when his prey is imminent. This isn’t the frights of fictitious monsters. In the novel, there is no brotherly angle for Miller, he’s merely pissed Ryan bested him. Presumably, the family efforts were added to give reason or sympathy to Miller’s ruthlessness, but this also implants a frightening personal question to the audience: What would you do if it were your dead brother? How would I react if my family were in danger? The reality of these questions and answers keeps the villainy real and our hatred on par. It’s a fine performance by Bean-one so good that us Americans can’t separate the actor from the terrorist. After all, they are both named Sean, aren’t they?

Patriot Games may be simplified as a man versus man vehicle, but there’s actually quite an ensemble cast here. It’s another facet not often seen in big action pictures. A superstar, maybe one or two name support players, but then the talent pool drops. Here, however, we’re treated to Samuel L. Jackson and James Earl Jones (Star Wars, anyone?), Polly Walker (Rome), Patrick Bergen (Sleeping with the Enemy), a cute Thora Birch (American Beauty), and a charming Richard Harris (The Field, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). Each actor has their moment of significance, and small, quiet, development scenes are allowed to blossom. Only Anne Archer (Falcon Crest, Fatal Attraction) seems a little out of place. At the time, she was the mature, wifely actress of note-but today, her star’s fallen against the rest of the international cast. Her Kathy’s a little snotty and uppity, too- a surgeon with a Porsche and nothing else to do. Even so, she looks the right age and style to match Ford-unlike some of the action hotties we often see.

Naturally, Irish and English relations are very different then they were in 1992. If Patriot Games was exclusively about IRA relations, its politics would now be one of study and history. By keeping the story personal with family and patriotism at the forefront, the politics are able to fold and meld into our current issues, thoughts, and feelings. That’s all well and good for a heightened movie experience, but I must warn that lovers of all things Irish might be a little offended at the somewhat stereotypical portrayal of Ireland and the IRA. Red wigs, some forced accents-the Celtic music, however, makes for a beautiful score. Careful listeners will also notice pieces of James Horner’s tunes from, of all films, Aliens; and observant viewers can spot Bean’s different hairstyles during the re-shot finale, too. On a side note, it’s also fun to watch Bean’s next film Lady Chatterley for the stitches and subsequent scar he received in the big finish with Ford. A boat hook to the left eye, ouch!

The Special Collector’s Edition DVD of Patriot Games isn’t necessarily as special as we’ve come to expect magical special editions to be, unfortunately. There’s restored film and sound, yes; but only a short interview feature with some of the cast and some trailers, whoopdeefingdo. Widescreen is a must, and a blu-ray edition is available in addition to several Jack Ryan sets. Readers of Clancy’s novel will find significant changes in the plot itself, and some might find the troublesome ending too far changed or rushed. Nevertheless, Patriot Games may perhaps be the most loved of the Jack Ryan film series. Of course, it is not the first. Alec Baldwin helmed The Hunt for Red October in 1990 and Ford would continue in 1994’s Clear and Present Danger before Ben Affleck too over for a prequel attempt in The Sum of All Fears (2002). Each has their mistakes as well as their moments. You don’t have to see all to appreciate one, but Ford fans who adore Patriot Games should pursue Clear and Present Danger.

Action fans looking for an intelligent caper need look no further than Patriot Games. Younger audiences may not grasp all the intelligence and subtleties; but outside of the built in fright of the storyline, brief sexuality, and mild language; there’s isn’t much to deter a family viewing-especially a television edit. Fans of the cast will also delight again and again. Great drama, action, politics, and performances- how can you not love Patriot Games?

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