Had it come out a year ago, The Sum of All Fears would have been taken by critics as what it is: the fourth screen adventure of CIA analyst Jack Ryan, the hero of a long line of Tom Clancy novels. In the new world climate, however, inevitable controversy over content threatens to overshadow the question of Sum's quality in reviews; in fact, some early notices already have been negatively colored by the context of real life events. That mode of thinking will certainly persist, if not intensify, when the film is released--which is a shame, for Sum rather intelligently addresses some now-not-so-fanciful sociopolitical situations while doing the job as a nailbiting thriller.
Before a single frame of film was shot, however, Sum already was awash in some controversy, centering around the new casting of Ryan; taking over the reins from Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford is Ben Affleck, playing a 28-year-old Ryan just starting out in the Agency. (Clancy purists and more nitpicky moviegoers will certainly gripe about the lack of continuity, for the film is set in the present day of 2002, which would then place it chronologically after the previous three films featuring an older Ryan; just take this film as being a wipe-the-slate-clean restart for the series.) In his first scenes, Affleck doesn't exactly convert the doubters; as he and his fellow junior analysts debate over the weight and romantic lives of various Russian government officials, Affleck displays the usual light charms that, while being a major reason for his successful screen career, seem completely wrong for this particular role.
"Seem" is the key word there, for in a particularly canny move, director Phil Alden Robinson and screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Paul Attanasio have structured the film in a way that works off of any doubts about Affleck's casting. After all, the Jack Ryan we see in The Sum of All Fears is not the same as the hardened Agency veteran who shouted down the President at the end of Clear and Present Danger, but a Ryan at the beginning of his career, a green desk jockey who has to quickly settle into the role of hero when push comes to shove. Much like Ryan's progression in the film, Affleck gradually settles into the role, on the whole delivers a respectable performance and an equally valid take on the character. That said, there's still room for him to grow more comfortable in the part; youth aside, Affleck's Ryan at least for now lacks a certain distinct imprimatur to measure up with those of his predecessors' interpretations: collected calm of Baldwin's, or the gravitas of Ford's.
In The Sum of All Fears, however, that latter quality is provided by a formidable supporting cast, particularly gravitas specialist Morgan Freeman, who plays CIA director William Cabot. Cabot plucks Ryan from his low-level desk into the inner sanctum of the U.S. government to assist in a meeting with new Russian president Nemerov (Ciarán Hinds), on whom the young analyst had done extensive research. Ryan's brief assignment turns into something far more involved when an elaborate intrigue involving Neo-Nazis, missing Russian scientists, and a long-missing nuclear warhead is uncovered in the wake of some apparent Russian military action in Chechnya.
For anyone who's seen the idiotically tell-all trailer, the suspense revolving around the warhead will undoubtedly be diminished, but the impact of a plot turn that hinges upon the weapon is still considerable, particularly in light of real-life developments. Just for this, Sum is certain to be blasted for being "exploitative" and "irresponsible," but those critics will not have paid much attention to Robinson's restrained and tasteful approach, not to mention what follows: a pedal-to-the-metal final act that intelligently and all too plausibly details a tense and ever-escalating series of events that, in the end, can only be chalked up to shallow pride.
With a lot of the major action playing out within the upper echelons of global government, The Sum of All Fears is more of an ensemble piece than previous Clancy thrillers, which helps to relieve some of the pressure on Affleck. In addition to those of Freeman, who has terrific buddy sparring chemistry with Affleck; and Hinds, the film also boasts standout performances from James Cromwell as the U.S. President and Liev Schreiber as CIA field operative John Clark (who was played by Willem Dafoe in Clear and Present Danger). Glamour gal Bridget Moynahan ably plays against type as Ryan's physician girlfriend (and future wife) Cathy Muller, but the romantic angle is by far the film's least convincing and involving element.
However, Clancy films are never so much about Jack Ryan's personal life than those grand, globe-trotting adventures into which he finds himself thrust. The Sum of All Fears not only succeeds by that standard--it is a smart, complex, and engrossing idea-driven action thriller--but more importantly for Paramount, it also gets the more pressing job done: to breathe fresh life into a durable film franchise that, based on this installment, still has a promising future.