The Sum of All Fears and Bad Company (review)

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The Last Action Movies?

Whither the action movie? It’s probably the single biggest question weighing on the minds behind the Hollywood movie machine since September 11. Would audiences have the stomach for approximations of mass death and destruction after witnessing the real thing on live television?

The answer, it seems be transpiring in the aftermath, is: It depends.

No amount of foreknowledge about the trashing of Times Square in Spider-Man could keep fans away… particular not, in my own subjective experience, New York fans desperate for, ironically, escape. Despite the bizarre protestations of The Washington Post that this is a “no-longer-comic comic-book tale,” no one is going to mistake the Green Goblin for Mohamed Atta, and we’re all, I suspect, hungry for a superhero with a clear sense of morality and purpose to come to our aid. Odd as it may sound, watching a famous NYC neighborhood get demolished was cathartic, in this instance, partly because the perpetrator was brought to justice by the end of the last reel.
And because, yeah, the damage was inflicted by a goblin man wearing a mask like something out of a Japanese monster movie and flying on a hovering skateboard. Pretty gloriously silly stuff.

The Sum of All Fears is far from silly.

CIA analyst Jack Ryan has no superpowers, except perhaps the amazing ability to interpret satellite photos. The Sum of All Fears, favoring closed-door congressional hearings over kung-fu fisticuffs, could never be accused of comic-bookishness. The film’s centerpiece, an extremely realistic terrorist attack on an American city, is not cathartic in the least. But current events lend this — the latest installment in the techno-political thriller series based on Tom Clancy’s novels — an urgent intensity it probably was not intended to evince. What last summer would have been merely a damned entertaining, high-class popcorn flick (like Clancy/Ryan predecessor The Hunt for Red October), its studious demeanor imbuing it with cautionary overtones, now plays disturbingly like CNN Breaking News. It is absolutely must-see.

The story is simple in detail: A multinational group of terrorists, determined to set off a war between the United States and Russia, smuggle a small nuclear bomb into Baltimore, intending to detonate it and make it look like the Russians are responsible. The complexity comes in how the plot unwinds: Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck: Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Pearl Harbor) — historian, expert on Russian, and low-level CIA analyst — gets swept up into the situation by his way-higher-up boss, Bill Cabot (Morgan Freeman: High Crimes, Nurse Betty), and what starts as a minor mystery for him to solve — where are the three missing Russian bomb experts? — leads him into a morass of international intrigue and geekitude. It’s Jack’s wits that get him by, but they’re book-learned wits: trivia about the new Russian president that only an obsessive dork would know, for instance. Affleck, bless him, who has publicly said that he didn’t want to be the guy who made the bad Jack Ryan movie, pulls it off, admirably.

The thing that would have garnered Fears high marks prior to September 11 — and the thing that makes it work so well today — is that it does not come down to Ryan snipping the red wire with 3 seconds left on the countdown. Dammit, the bomb goes off, and it’s like being kicked in the chest. What makes the sequence so effective, so real, so genuine a reminder of last September (and of the bleak confidence of my childhood, so recently renewed, that I’d be killed in a nuclear war), is that we see the effects of the bomb only from the point of view of someone who could have survived the blast. We’re with Ryan, in a helicopter that gets tossed by the bomb’s shockwave, and we stay with him — his disorientation, his confusion — and we know what has happened, just as he does, through his (our) shock, but we haven’t seen it. Director Phil Alden Robinson (Sneakers) doesn’t glory in the mechanics of the explosion (unlike, say, Clancy’s page- upon- page description in the novel, like Hemingway on nuclear physics), and it’s so much more terrifying this way. Robinson creates a horrible kind of suspense out of it, actually: With my hand clutched to my chest, wondering when I was going to be able to breathe again, I watched Jack Ryan stumble around in the aftermath and I kept thinking, “Oh God, oh God, Affleck’s gonna turn around and we’re gonna see the mushroom cloud.” And we did.

But that’s only the halfway point of the film, and Ryan’s still got a job to do: to convince the president of the United States (James Cromwell: Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Space Cowboys) that this wasn’t the doing of the Russians, and that he might want to reconsider the plan to nuke Moscow. Of course, communication lines of all kinds are down, and no one wants to listen to Ryan anyway, in their grief. But Ryan, the man who knows how the complicated pieces of the puzzle fit together, won’t stop until the right people hear what he has to say. Fears is an Information Age thriller, and that’s why it works, and why we believe it. The top-billed star cutting the right wire to save the day won’t cut it anymore. The real heroes of the real world are the Jack Ryans. And if The Sum of All Fears is even more disturbing than it should be at the moment when we need the Ryans more than ever, it’s because we now know that the Ryans — like, say, Minneapolis and Phoenix FBI field agents — get ignored.

Undercover brother
If Fears succeeds on its realism, then Bad Company fails on its absurdity. It’s the CIA again, and nuclear terrorism again, but there the similarities with Fears end. And what makes it so unpalatable isn’t the gunfights and the fistfights and car chases per se, nor even the is- it- the- blue- wire- or- the- red- wire? finale in itself… it’s that the filmmakers felt they could foist off disjointed and inchoate action-flick junk on us once again under the guise of entertainment. Even if you’ve never seen Bad Company — and I by no means whatsoever recommend that you do — you’ve seen it. Probably starring Dolph Lundgren on Starz in the middle of an insomniac night.

The filmmakers here are schlockmeister producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Con Air, Pearl Harbor) and incoherent and exploitive director Joel Schumacher (8MM, Batman and Robin), so it’s not like any of this could be called a disappointment, or indeed even a surprise.

I’m not even sure I could tell you what Bad Company refers to. Clearly, the Company part is for the CIA, but why Bad? Who’s “bad”? Is Chris Rock supposed to be “bad”? He gets shanghaied by the CIA when his identical twin brother, a company operative, gets killed, and the CIA needs him to take his brother’s place on an important mission. Is Rock’s (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Nurse Betty) tough, streetwise (and black) Jake Hayes “bad” because he smart-mouths his new CIA overlord, cold, efficient (and white) Gaylord Oakes (Anthony Hopkins: Hannibal, The Grinch)? Or is Jake Oakes’s “bad company” because Jake is gonna get everyone in their CIA unit killed with his street-urchin swaggering? Or is the CIA the “bad” “Company” for lending their name to this film in the first place? Will the director disavow all knowledge of this movie if asked about it? Or is it the FBI that does that?

I’m confused. But I needed something to occupy me while the film unspooled, because I’ve seen Chris Rock’s standup — the snarly gist of which is all that Jake is about — and I saw that Peacemaker movie with George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, which was a much better version of the same nukular-terrorism story. Which reminds me that the real movie that goes with the title “Bad Company” probably stars Clooney in some smartass CIA-meets-Ocean’s Eleven piece of fluffery, you know, something sexy and dangerous instead of boring and obvious.

Gabriel Macht is here, as a CIA agent, and he’s kinda cute, but his big scene is a fistfight that takes place in a big empty room and yet appears to have been filmed from across the street — it’s pretty hard to tell what’s going on or even who’s punching who. That chick who was chillingly terrifying in as the pregnant killer in Series 7: The Contenders is here, too, as another CIA agent, but she mostly gets to stand around being mistaken for Anthony Hopkins’s girlfriend. Note to all interested parties: Hopkins must never, ever be allowed to attempt the warm, paternal type, as he does here, though the explanation of why he morphs from the heartless bastard Jake first encounters into the warm, paternal type in the second act is forgotten in the rush to ensure that we are given as many opportunities as possible to see people with guns chasing one another along sidewalks of world cities. Oh look, we’re in New York. Oh look, we’re in Prague. Oh look, we blew our budget on travel: get the monkeys with the typewriters to work on the script stat.

The complete lack of anything even remotely surprising or suspenseful comes back to haunt Bad Company when, at the end, the terrorist bad guy — suddenly and without reason — decides he wants to nuke New York, and we never experience a single moment of doubt as to whether Jake and Bad Co. will stop him in time. How big a joke — on the filmmakers, that is, and not one that makes us laugh — is Bad Company? Well, while The Sum of All Fears‘ depiction of nuclear terrorism left me so stunned that I wanted to crawl into bed for days, Bad Company is so phony that it makes me feel removed enough from reality to make some terrible, in-bad-taste quip about the terrorists deserving to win, if only I thought the movie was worth mustering the energy to think of one.

Okay, here’s one: If it means that the Terrorists Have Already Won if Jerry Bruckerheimer and Joel Schumacher have to stop making their crap blow-’em-up movies in our sensitive post-September 11 world, then I say, Let the terrorists win.

The Sum of All Fears
viewed at a public multiplex screening
rated PG-13 for violence, disaster images and brief strong language
official site | IMDB

Bad Company
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action, some sensuality and language
official site | IMDB

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