Sheer chronological accident made 2002's The Sum of All Fears the unwilling First Jack Ryan Picture of a Post-9/11 World, but in all particulars it feels far more like the decade-late First Jack Ryan Picture of a Post-Cold War World. Notwithstanding the fact that all of the Jack Ryan movies came out after the end of the Cold War. It boasts a half-baked, conceptually bobble-headed attempt to figure out ways to tell a traditional spy thriller narrative with ex-Soviet Russian that calls to mind GoldenEye, the first James Bond picture of the new era, with the key difference that James Bond pictures are, as a class, fantasies; and also that GoldenEye came out in 1995, in a whole different century, with vastly different geopolitical concern.

GoldenEye was also directed by Martin Campbell, a handsomely talented action movie hack director, while The Sum of All Fears somehow ended up under the control of Phil Alden Robinson, who made Field of Dreams. And also Sneakers, which is at least in the sort of techno-thriller wheelhouse, though I'm guessing that exactly nobody, in 1992, looked at the bubbly Sneakers and then at the scowling Patriot Games, and said to themselves, "by the end of ten years, these two things will be as one". The point being, intense thrills wrung out of scenes of people staring at readouts is somewhat beyond Robinson's grasp, as compared to his franchise predecessors, John McTiernan and Phillip Noyce; where Noyce made white-knuckle cinema out of a scene of a guy trying to hit "print screen" in Clear and Present Danger, Robinson has a hard time getting more than a muted sort of tension from an interrupted phone call whose stakes are the literal annihilation of the human race in nuclear warfare.

At least we can say this much for The Sum of All Fears: it is a Jack Ryan story about spies using computers and knowledge of random technological arcana, and so feels generally in the spirit of what makes the franchise unique and interesting. Everything else has changed, though; following a lengthy stint in Development Hell that left Harrison Ford too old and too cranky to make another film, TSoAF ends up rebooting Ryan to a hungry young CIA analyst in the early stages of his career, played by Ben Affleck. And I'd like to get the plot handled, so I won't talk more about Mr. Affleck at this juncture, but there is certainly much to say. The compressed version of a very complex story indeed (writers Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne had the honors of whittling down Tom Clancy's doorstop this time around) is that the president of Russia just died from excessive living, and the office has ended up at the doorstep of the largely unknown politician Nemerov (CiarΓ‘n Hinds, who, bless his heart, chomps onto a cartoon Russian accent like a pit bull and worries it till the very last scene).

On a diplomatic mission that's really a fact-finding detail, CIA director William Cabot (Morgan Freeman, filling the "authoritatively-voiced African-American boss" role for James Earl Jones) drags the history geek Ryan along to offer specialised knowledge about Russia. What Ryan finds there leads him to believe that somebody is trying to build a nuclear warhead, though who, why, and with what materials are complete blank spots. It will do for our purposes to know that the who is a neo-Nazi named Richard Dressler (Alan Bates), the why is to create a Europe-spanning Fourth Reich, and the with what is an Israeli warhead that went missing in the opening scene, in 1973. It naturally falls to Ryan to uncover all of this while also trying to convince the President (James Cromwell) not to start a war until he's absolutely certain that the Russians are the ones making all the saber-rattling gestures, like blowing up Baltimore with a suitcase nuke and all.

The story is the one thing that pretty much works; not, maybe, the actual specific story of neo-Nazi plans to set the U.S. and Russia at each other's throats, but certainly the way that the green Ryan has to simultaneously investigated a well-hidden plot while also convincing everyone besides Cabot that he's not just an idiot kid. And here's where we run into trouble, because in 2002, the perpetually under-performing 29-year-old actor Ben Affleck really kind of was an idiot kid. An unbelievably promising directorial career that kicked off five years after this film, as well as several good character roles for directors looking to challenge the star and not just let him be handsome, have left Affleck with the enviable aura of "we were so wrong about you! you're awesome!" regarding his early work, and everybody loves him now; that's what makes it instructive to look just a decade back past Argo to see, in fact, that there wasn't any there there, that Affleck had to grow up into being a serious actor. As a hunky matinee star, he was a fucking disaster (though not as unacceptable here as in the previous year's Pearl Harbor). Not just compared to the very good work done by Ford and Alec Baldwin in the same role, but compared to any preconceptions any of us might have about "intellectually gifted CIA paper pusher and quick-witted neophyte spy", Affleck is a horrible mismatch: he had, at this time, absolutely no ability to turn of the smug smirk that communicates "I'm famous for no real reason other than having a way more talented friend in Matt Damon" in searing neon lights. His Jack Ryan is simply impossible to take seriously, and that's something the film could probably never survive.

It certainly couldn't survive with that on top of everything else going wrong: Alden's slack direction that makes the talky scenes feel talky and not gripping, the minutely chopped-up dialogue that hold the audience's hand every step of the way, the overall political illiteracy (9/11 was a huge boon to the movie, or at least the specter of war in Iraq was; it at least allowed this impossible attempt to craft the 1980s onto the 2000s to pretend it was functioning as a metaphor for presidential war powers used with more ardor than sense). Even the score by the typically ace Jerry Goldsmith feels horribly rote and generic, assuring us that the off-the-shelf explosions we're looking at are, no really, way exciting. The film manages to waste a pretty terrific cast (Philip Baker Hall, Bruce McGill, Ron Rifkin, and Liev Schreiber all have decent-sized parts, the last of those men easily stealing every scene he's in), while also stranding Bridget Moynahan in a thankless doctor girlfriend role beneath even her talents.

It is, in short, the perfect Jack Ryan movie for the 2000s, a decade where the popcorn movie perfected the art of being soulless corporate swill. No story that's about spying as a desk job and not a train of exotic sexual encounters deserves to be written off altogether, but there's precious damn little about The Sum of All Fears that's particularly enjoyable on any level, and many individual pieces are quite irredeemably bad. Small wonder that the film put the franchise back in mothballs just as quickly as it freshened it up.

Reviews in this series
The Hunt for Red October (McTiernan, 1990)
Patriot Games (Noyce, 1992)
Clear and Present Danger (Noyce, 1994)
The Sum of All Fears (Robinson, 2002)
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Branagh, 2014)