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‘Patriot Games’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 05, 1992

The world in Tom Clancy's novels is a complicated place, filled with covert maneuverings and nefarious political alliances -- a world of disorienting shades of gray. But Clancy's characters are simple, elemental, with personalities drawn in bold blacks and whites.

Jack Ryan, the hero of the uneven, occasionally laborious new thriller "Patriot Games," is just such a man. Played by Harrison Ford, Ryan doesn't waste time in deliberation; he acts. And so when he stumbles into the middle of an attempt by Irish radicals to abduct several members of the British royal family in London, he plunges in by instinct, rushing the gunmen, killing one of them and, even though he takes a bullet in the shoulder, thwarting the attack. Why does he risk his life and the lives of his wife, Cathy (Anne Archer) and his daughter (Thora Birch), who are no more than a stone's throw away?

His answer: "It made me mad."

The film's plot hangs on this single, impulsive act of heroism. Though Ryan is a retired CIA agent, he and his family are in England on vacation. It's merely by coincidence that he becomes enmeshed in these violent affairs. But once he's involved, his life is irrevocably changed; in an instant, his tranquil domestic existence is transformed into a nightmare.

In these initial scenes, Australian director Phillip Noyce ("Dead Calm") is able to skillfully set his narrative hook. He's good at getting us inside Ryan's lightning-quick thought processes so that the visceral thrills of his heroism are as mental as they are physical. This is the primary source of the movie's appeal; it lets us watch Ryan think, and centers us solidly in Ford's performance. It's as if the whole movie takes place inside his head.

When we branch out to other characters, though, the movie loses its focus. Basically, the film is a revenge play. The terrorist attack against the royal family -- who in the book are Charles and Princess Di, but here become Lord Holmes (James Fox) and his wife -- was executed by members of a rabidly militant IRA splinter group. And the man Ryan killed was the younger brother of one of its leaders, named Sean Miller (Sean Bean), who becomes obsessively fixated on destroying Ryan's life.

The main problem with "Patriot Games," though, is that the inevitable confrontation between Ryan and Miller takes forever to materialize. In the interim, Noyce gets bogged down in the mass of technical detail -- the inside-CIA baseball -- that is such an integral aspect of Clancy's books. On the page, Clancy's research is impressively exhaustive, and if by chance you become bored, you can always skip ahead. But a movie doesn't afford us this luxury. Some of what we're shown about the inner working of the intelligence network is fascinating, but sometimes it can become an irritating distraction. You just want to cut to the chase.

During this middle section, the film falls completely into the doldrums. If you were forced to be specific about precisely what kind of game is being played here, it would be chess. There's simply too much time spent moving the pieces into place. The subplot involving O'Donnell (Patrick Bergin, sans his "Sleeping With the Enemy" mustache) and his lethally foxy partner, Annette (Polly Walker), comes across as a less than essential narrative tangent too. O'Donnell is the mastermind of this rogue sect, and Annette his honey-pot hit girl, but their characters are as underdeveloped as they are marginal.

Ford's performance is the picture's only saving grace. There's nothing subtle about Ford's style as an actor, nor is he particularly graceful in achieving his effects. He seems always on the verge of being terrible, of blowing it. But it is precisely this clumsiness that makes him so believable, so irresistibly watchable.

Ford doesn't do anything new here; he's pretty much Indiana Jones in a suit. But his star performance is almost enough to make the picture worth watching. The movie's final scenes deliver on the promised confrontation between Ryan and Miller, and Noyce does a serviceable job with the climatic action sequences. But the film holds too few surprises to sustain our interest. All too often, we're ahead of the game.

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