Tom Clancy novels are known more for their exposition and plotting than their riveting action set-pieces. So when I threw The Hunt for Red October into my action I might have been stretching just a bit by calling it an action picture. Patriot Games, on the other hand, is most certainly an action picture and while it might not be as action packed as most there’s enough action and fluid pacing to make it just as entertaining a watch as any good action flick.
What starts as a leisurely tourist trip in England for Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford), his wife, Cathy (Anne Archer), and daughter, Sally (Thora Birch), takes a turn for the traumatic when the family gets caught as bystanders in a terrorist attack on the royal family. Jack jumps into the fray, kills one of the terrorists and gets caught up in an international incident. The terrorist he kills ends up being a member of a radical cell that split off from the IRA and, more importantly, the kid brother of Sean Miller (Sean Bean) who becomes hell bent on getting his revenge.
If The Hunt for Red October was a little to heaving on the plotting for you, Patriot Games takes on a more effective pacing by creating a tempo between three main elements: exposition, plotting and action. By juggling these three elements the film is able to effectively keep our interest, feeding us bits of information while breaking up all the action with important plot points and interesting action.
I think a lot of fascination with Tom Clancy is his inside look into the workings of American intelligence agencies. It’s certainly the reason why I read Patriot Games as a kid. Jack is a former CIA analyst and once he becomes a political target he makes his way back into the agency. The intricacies of the politics could be a film unto itself but the film does a good job of only giving us enough to keep us informed as to what is going on with these IRA terrorists.
Jack’s whole motivation for rejoining is to protect his family. After seeing plenty of action heroes with dysfunctional families or families they essentially ignore it’s nice to see a simple, wholesome good ole American family. We are treated to this sweet, innocent loving family that I cared about within the first thirty minutes of the film. Sure, they could have created tension with a dysfunctional family but I think it adds more tension with this sweet family. When Jack goes to the mattresses on these terrorists it’s not for God or country, it’s to defend the American family. What other action hero does that?
But that isn’t to say that the villain is some psychopathic wacko who just wants to blow up the world. He’s got a political agenda that makes sense even though most would disagree with his methods. Likewise, when the film essentially becomes a revenge film from his point of view it’s not some thin excuse for plot. He watched his kid brother die before his eyes. Despite the fact we should hate him I find that Sean Miller is quite a compelling and human villain, one I can sympathize with and a far cry from the simplistic action villain.
When these two forces collide and the action scenes come it’s not with a bang. Since this film is more about the realistic workings of the agency there’s a kind of clinical detachment to the action. Even the early scene where Jack kills the terrorist doesn’t feel like the heightened action piece, it just happens. There’s a scene that in any other film would be a million dollar action piece but instead is viewed via satellite feed in an intelligence room as Ryan watches. As he hears the commands being ordered by the intelligence officers while watching the glowing figures on the satellite feed writhe in pain or struggle in vain we can see the churning of his stomach. There’s something horrifically sick about how detached and emotionless the killing has gotten and it’s reflected by the fact that director doesn’t try to entertain us with the piece.
Patriot Games is a skillfully crafted action film built around fascinating exposition. In this way it’s an anomaly, entertaining us almost more with the behind the scenes stuff than the actual action. It even furthers this cause by crafting a cast of likable characters. It’s a nice change of pace to have an action film where I actually can care and sympathize with these people instead of simply being amused by their playacting.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing