Harrison Ford was getting too old and Alec Baldwin couldn’t reclaim his former proposed franchise throne. Plus, the makers of The Sum of All Fears wanted a new Jack Ryan to ride into the millennium, so they turned to a young upstart with an Oscar under his belt for help. At this point in his rising career, Ben Affleck had earned indie cred by starring in such Kevin Smith classics as Mallrats and Chasing Amy, earned an Academy Award for writing the script to Good Will Hunting, and stretched his commercial credibility with such films as Armageddon, Boiler Room, and Pearl Harbor. Ignoring the events of the previous Tom Clancy-inspired efforts, Ryan was given a youthful makeover. The result was one of the best movies in the entire franchise.
Nuclear weapons are the focus this time around as Affleck’s Ryan must uncover the whereabouts of a rogue missile lost in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Now in the hands of Richard Dressler, an Austrian neo-Nazi (Alan Bates), the bomb is retrofitted by Russian scientists so it can be transported to the US. There, it will be used as a means to undermine the uneasy detente between President J. Robert Fowler (James Cromwell) and his post-Soviet equivalent, Alexander Nemerov (Ciarán Hinds). With the help of CIA Director William Cabot (Morgan Freeman), Ryan discovers a plan of attack during a football game in Baltimore. The resulting events push the two countries closer to full scale nuclear assault, while Dressler sits back and waits, hoping the inevitable destruction of the two major superpowers will lead to his rise to international importance. This movie may be aiming for seriousness, but that’s a Bond movie plot through and through — and not a particularly bad one at that.
Affleck is very good as Ryan. He doesn’t come across as super-heroic (ala Ford) or uber-diplomatic (as with Baldwin). Instead, he has the right combination of brains and brawn, able to fight when he has to but more than happy to take down an opponent with smarts and strategy. One could easily see him stepping into the character’s shoes for more installments. (There are at least four un-adapted novels, as well as associated material.)
Nixing the angry Arab angle from the book (though not in response to 9/11) while bringing other minor elements to the fore, The Sum of All Fears is a reboot that didn’t quite succeed financially at the time. That’s a shame, too. It’s a solid piece of popcorn entertainment that knows how to deliver when the radioactive chips are down. And its impact remains long after the last reel unwinds.