Review: “The Sum of All Fears”

For all its script/story shortcomings and a rather weak lead though, ‘Sum’ is certainly a solid effort. Whilst its treading over familiar ground, the film never really goes overboard – the majority of actions and decisions made are believable though not at the pace in which they’re presented. A few smart lines bring a smile to this effective, albeit somewhat generic military thriller’, ‘If there’s one quality to have in order to be an effective movie reviewer, its objectivity. Current events from a star’s drug/sex scandal to the world political climate should not have an effect on a reviewer’s opinion of a film’s merits.

With this being the first post 9-11 major movie blockbuster about terrorism, its been fascinating to watch how various American reviewers have reacted to the film and how much that real life terrorist incident had an effect on their opinion – some just ignored it completely, others spent most of their article talking about it and not actually reviewing the film. Terrorism has been around for many years and will continue for many years more. The sarin gas attack in Japan in the early 90’s, the Hilton bombing in Sydney of 1978, the numerous IRA-related incidents in London, and of course Oklahoma City – the fact that 9-11 happened wasn’t what was surprising, the sheer scale of the devastation is what left the world speechless.

One of the most striking films of 1998 I found was “The Siege”, a movie which I was quite astonished that many critics just dismissed in hand at the time. If you look back at it today, its a foreshadowing and smartly produced piece which really tries hard and for the most part succeeds in portraying realistic events to prolonged attacks of terrorism within the US. In any case this is a movie site, not a case study of terrorism – this film is not about what happened in NYC, Tom Clancy’s book was written many years beforehand, and the film finished shooting before that tragic day therefore it shouldn’t play any part in a truly objective reviewer’s opinion of the film and I won’t let it influence me in this case.

“The Hunt for Red October” is one of my all time favourite action films and in my Top Ten of all time so no new film in this series could approach it. For all its weaknesses, the more drama oriented “Patriot Games” has its moments (eg. the SAS raid) but otherwise is rather ordinary. “Clear and Present Danger” remains a complex and tightly plotted action/drama with a solid story that’s complicated and yet very engaging throughout. ‘Sum’ sits above ‘Patriot’ but below ‘Clear’ on the scale, its more like “The Peacemaker” the way that movie should’ve been done and more accessible to audiences than the densely layered and less epic films of the Ford/Noyce era.

‘Sum’ strength lies in the fact that its a pretty well put together piece. Phil Alden Robinson has shown he cares about story as much as style and has come up with some real gems over the years such as the underrated “Sneakers”. Here his skill lends itself to the franchise and gives it the most visually impressive feel its had since ‘Hunt’, whilst the script relies more on complex subplots and slowly ramping up tension than flashy FX or useless action.

Right from the start the setup whilst a little unbelievable (I mean someone would’ve gone out to inspect that wreckage, even back in 1973) is nevertheless is a credible enough setup for the movie. I can’t recall a film ever jumping around from one location to another more than this one – at one moment we’re on the US East Coast, the next we’re in Damascus, or Moscow, or Vienna, or Haifi – its all over the place but pulls it off surprisingly well. Whilst Ryan’s establishing character sequences such as his co-workers talking about the Russian leader’s sex life are cringe-inducing, once he and Freeman get together the two click and there’s a likable master/protege relationship that continues for a while.

The use of Affleck is rather questionable. I like him as an actor and he works well in both comedy and straight-laced drama, but as an action hero though he sadly doesn’t have that heft and his cocky attitude comes off with a little bit of fratboy arrogance (though that makes the scenes where he’s being told off more enjoyable). Its a tough role which he sadly isn’t able to fill the shoes of, especially considering the lineage including the always superb Ford, and Baldwin who gave us a lead that was quirky but far more personable and likable.

Aldensen has done the smart choice though of surrounding him by a group of talented actors with Freeman as always doing a great job as the CIA Director, whilst both James Cromwell and Ciar�n Hinds do solid turns as extremist US and Russian Presidents respectively (Cromwell reminds me of George W. in this which is why I long for the days of Clinton). Also surprisingly good is Liev Schrieber who plays the dark John Clark role quite well though isn’t able to pull off the hardened demeanour that a face like Willem Dafoe was easily able to do in ‘Clear’.

Bridget Moynahan is dead waste as Ryan’s girlfriend and their scenes together are the weakest moments of the film as its all basically lovey-dovey sh*t in bed which gets so annoying you hope they’ll burn up in an atomic fire (Moynahan lacks the class and quirky humour of Archer’s character). Sadly great actors like Ron Rifkin and Philip Baker Hall are stuck with rather one-dimensional presidential aide roles too, though look for some fun cameos such as Richard Marner (Col. Von Strom from “Allo Allo”) as Russian President Zorkin.

The story and the villains of the piece are the film’s weakest point. This is all about the finding and shipping of a nuclear bomb to the US – a rather simple and unoriginal plot which is made unnecessarily complicated throughout the first half, and then 2/3 of the way in the story switches over to another and even more dated storyline of escalating US-Russian tension. The villains come in the form of Alan Bates and a small group of well-placed Neo-Nazis who of course do the standard Hollywood movie guy response when asked the question why they say “Hitler got it wrong”. The lack of a credible motivation, and the fact they’re very analogous to the main action makes them a rather weak and uninteresting threat. More convincing is Colm Feore as a shady South African arms dealer, at least his motivations of simply money are far more believable and frightening than some over-the-top scheme out of a bad James Bond movie.

The big event piece of the movie is not overly gratuitous, in fact aside from four or five quick FX shots there’s little to it, but its at this point the film – which has consistenly been building tension and pace, suddenly loses it all and seems to wander aimlessly for the remaining 45 minutes or so as we swap between lots of close up arguments on Air Force One, and Affleck running on what looks like the set of “Volcano 2” whilst shouting out as much as he can and jumping quickly from one place to another with little explanation.

There’s some good FX work after that (the aircrat carrier on fire CG shot is a thing of beauty), and a solid ‘coda’ as such in which certain people get what they deserve, but a good half hour of this last act could’ve been cut with the same result and the movie would’ve been better for it. Plus many of the tensions in this last act rely on old-fashioned Cold War time paranoia which no longer is in effect today and in any case even at its height in the 60’s, the ease with which both leaders are prepared to go into nuclear war is almost laughibly uncredible and feels like a dated spy thriller.

For all its script/story shortcomings and a rather weak lead though, ‘Sum’ is certainly a slightly above average effort for a studio Summer movie. Whilst its treading over familiar ground, the film never really goes overboard – the majority of actions and decisions made are believable though not at the pace in which they’re presented (but this is a movie after all). A few smart lines bring a smile, and the veteran cast members seem to be having fun spouting their militaristic jingo around which makes it quite a watchable film. Its an effective, albeit somewhat generic military thriller which should satisfy those looking for something with a little more teeth than “Spider-Man” or “Star Wars”.