Neo-Nazis scheme to ignite World War III by setting off a nuclear weapon at the Super Bowl in Maryland and then having the U.S. blame Russia. Only CIA agent Jack Ryan can avert disaster. That's the event that sparks The Sum of All Fears, petty stuff compared to the real issue concerning the fourth novel by Tom Clancy to hit the screen. Which is: How the hell did Ben Affleck, 29, wind up replacing Harrison Ford, 59, as our hero? Who's next as Ryan – Ozzy Osbourne's guppy son, Jack?
Chronology hasn't been this royally fucked with since Memento. The time is still the present, but Ryan has grown three decades younger. He's no longer deputy director of the CIA but a raw recruit. The wife and daughter carted around by Ford in 1992's Patriot Games and 1994's Clear and Present Danger – and by Alec Baldwin, the first Ryan, in 1990's The Hunt for Red October – are gone. Affleck's Ryan has just begun his affair with future wife Cathy Muller (Bridget Moynahan), a surgical resident in Baltimore who doesn't buy his excuse for breaking a date: CIA director Bill Cabot, played by the always welcome Morgan Freeman, has asked Ryan to accompany him to Russia on a nuclear-arms inspection. "That's so lame," says Cathy.
Not as lame as this movie. You could get past the fountain-of-youth casting of Affleck – clearly, the producers want to rebuild the Ryan franchise from the ground up, and to hell with logic – if The Sum of All Fears delivered the goods as a brainy tech-no-thriller. But there's something timid about the script that Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne have cobbled together from Clancy's entertainingly overheated prose about a nuclear bomb, lost by the Israelis back in the Seventies, falling into the wrong hands. In the interest of political correctness – never a good thing in action flicks – the script changes the terrorists from Arabs to generic Nazis, led by industrialist Richard Dressler (Alan Bates, a great actor reduced here to heavily accented hamming). Worse, Phil Alden Robinson, who helped popularize the concept of "If you build it, he will come" as the director of Field of Dreams, hasn't built a better mousetrap to pull in an audience. In a misguided attempt at subtlety, he blows the big action scenes, especially the Super Bowl event. And the bomb effects that wipe out most of Baltimore look like outtakes from Twister, lacking only the flying cow.
Where's Affleck in all this? Lost in the shuffle. The Sum of All Fears is stuffed with characters, from the American president (James Cromwell) to his Russian equivalent (Ciarán Hinds) and every bureaucrat in between. Liev Schreiber gives the film's strongest performance by managing to inject complexity and wit into the small role, too small, of CIA operative John Clark. Affleck is left wandering through the muddle, making the occasional smart observation to suggest the steel that will eventually win him the White House, as Ryan does in a later Clancy novel. Right now, though, Affleck merely creates an outline for a role he still needs to grow into, a role that Ford effortlessly filled with authority. The attempt to squeeze Titanic-size emotion into the love story is equally insipid. After the bombing, Ryan is told by phone of the destruction of a Baltimore hospital. "Is that Cathy's hospital?" he asks with a sniffle. You won't find the Jack Ryan who energized so many Clancy novels in a film this flat and forgettable.