Patriot Games: Starring Harrison Ford

Of the major summer releases, Patriot Games, based on Tom Clancy’s 1987 popular novel, is the most satisfying, even though it is old-fashioned and conventional.

Paramount’s production has been controversial for a number of reasons.  Alec Baldwin, who starred in the first hit based on a Clancy novel, The Hunt of the Red October, left the project and was replaced by Harrison Ford.  Then, Clancy publicly expressed his dissatisfaction with the screen adaption (by W. Peter Illif and Donald Stewart), claiming it had little to do with his book. Finally, the ending was reshot and the movie retouched in post-production. Judging by what’s on the screen, Patriot Games can be recommended as a solid Hollywood genre film, an action thriller with exciting stunts and shoot-’em-up set-pieces.

It is hard to speculate how the film would have been with Baldwin as its star. Clancy’s fans may not like the idea of a middle-aged Ryan; Ford is over a decade older than the novel’s hero. Still, Ford, a veteran of action fare (the Indiana Jones film series) does more than a creditable job.

The narrative begins in London, where Ryan, a history professor, ex-Marine and former CIA operative, is vacationing with his wife (Anne Archer) and daughter (Thora Birch). Witnessing a terrorist ambush near Buckingham Palace, Ryan intervenes, killing one gunman and injuring another. The surviving terrorist, Sean Miller (Sean Bean), a leader of an extremist offshoot of the IRA, vows to avenge his sibling (“you killed my baby brother!”).

The dominant motif in Patriot Games is that of revenge. In the movie’s key scene, Cathy Ryan, bristling at the threat of her family, tells her husband: “You get him, Jack. I don’t care what you have to do–just get him.” From then on, the movie becomes the story of a nuclear family in imminent danger, fighting for its survival.

Like most genre items, the film simplifies the story’s larger and more complex political issues and underplays the characters’ moral dilemmas. But despite its routine screenplay, Patriot Games is not totally mindless. Director Phillip Noyce does convey the commitment of the Irish to their cause, and the struggles of a press spokesman for the IRA (slyly played by Richard Harris) for a better media image. He also deals with the opposition within the terrorist group to Miller’s personal vendetta in a scheme that might risk their entire operation.

Australian Noyce, who made the excellent thriller Dead Calm in l989, demonstrates a highly developed sense of what makes psychological thrillers work. He keeps the pot boiling, building up tension in one scene after another. The mise-en-scene of at least two action sequences is noteworthy. Noyce’s staging of a freeway shootout that involves the terrorists and Ryan’s family is masterly. And he impressively captures a raid on a terrorists camp–shown entirely on a computer screen–a simulation of the Video Image process used in CIA satellite surveillance.

In style, the movie lifts a visual trick from Silence of the Lambs. The terrorists attack Ryan’s house with infrared glasses, when the lights go out during an all too convenient storm. And the climax, the boat chase in the water and the fight between Ford and Miller, will remind you of the ending of Cape Fear. Patriot Game is a suspenseful, visceral diversion, a treat for the eyes if not for the mind.