a critiQal film review The Sum of All Fears (2002)

  • DVD
  • Blu-Ray

Plot: When the Russian president suddenly dies and a relative unknown (Hinds) takes his place, world tension escalates. Coupled with missing nuclear scientists and the threat of a nuclear detonation on United States soil, young CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Affleck) must uncover who is behind the conspiracy.

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Tom Clancy novel adaptations have made for some pretty good movies. The Hunt for Red October (1990). Patriot Games (1992). But, there were still two films I hadn’t seen yet: Clear and Present Danger (1994), and The Sum of All Fears. With the latter popping up on NetFlix®, it seemed like the time had come to find out if this film could stack up with the two I’d already seen.

The actors are all a bit shocking, at first. With obvious comparisons to The Hunt for Red October (1990) and Patriot Games (1992), the familiar characters seem quite a bit younger for this film. Even knowing it’s a prequel of sorts, it’s hard to picture Alec Baldwin or Harrison Ford as an older Ben Affleck, or William Sadler as an older version of Liev Schreiber. And yet, that’s exactly what these films have the viewer do.

With the viewer already trying to wrap their head around the Baldwin/Ford/Affleck issue, Affleck’s performance as Jack Ryan in The Sum of All Fears suffers greatly. Since the viewer is already distanced by trying to merge the three actors into the Jack Ryan character, Affleck’s performance really needs to stand out – and it just doesn’t. He’s just going through the motions. Sure, he’s got an earnestness about him in this film that helps, but he takes that guilelessness to extremes, making his character come off as more of a goof than the “rookie” he’s trying to portray.

Liev Schreiber isn’t much better as John Clark. The “wetwork” guy of the operation, Schreiber goes about his business with a cold detachment that also goes to extreme. While he does get a dose of humor when he briefly teams up with Affleck, his later missions never get that wry grin that Sadler does so well. While it’s hard to see a physical similarity between Liev and Sandler, their performances are truly what set them apart, and once again the viewer has a hard time reconciling the two of them into the same John Clark character.

Morgan Freeman, on the other hand, does a bang-up job as Bill Cabot. While he does have the distinct advantage of not being in any previous Jack Ryan films, he still manages to make the character a familiar one with a quick glance and a smile. Sure, it’s not his most robust character. But, like so many of his other characters, he manages to give the viewer a character worth paying attention to – and The Sum of All Fears is that much the better for it.

The rest of the players in the film, aside from brief moments from James Cromwell as the US President, and Ciaran Hinds as the President of Russia, are merely background scenery for the events that unfold. Even usually notable actors like Bruce McGill, Ron Rifkin and Colm Feore barely register to the audience at all.

Thankfully, the plot is interesting enough to pull the viewer’s eye away – at least briefly – from the lackluster performances given by most of the cast. Sadly, once events are put in motion, even that seems to be rushed as they try to pack a lot of info into just a few sequences.

And that is probably the biggest drawback of The Sum of All Fears: it’s pacing. It’s slow and steady at first, with the viewer expecting a slow build-up to the main event. Then it suddenly kicks into high gear, delivering the main event sooner than expected. After that major event, the rest of the movie is, honestly, a bit of a let-down, even though what action sequences the film has left are amped up as much as possible. It’s the uneven pacing, however, that contributes the most to the viewer recognizing the more than 2-hour running time of the film as a bad thing.

While the pacing is uneven, the inability of the viewer to reconcile all the different actors as the same characters (Baldwin/Ford/Affleck as Ryan; Sadler/Schreiber as John Clark) really requires stand-out performances from both Ben Affleck and Liev Schreiber – and neither deliver. With that interest in the characters twice removed already, it makes the film come off as a rather dull talker, rather than the intense action thriller it tries to be. Even Morgan Freeman delivering another solid performance can’t help The Sum of All Fears rise too far on the likability scale, leaving the film stranded in the overcrowded middle ground of action flicks.

True, The Sum of All Fears could have been worse. But, as The Hunt for Red October (1990) and Patriot Games (1992) prove, it could have been a whole lot better too. And that’s just disappointing.

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