No stranger to movie franchises, it came as no surprise when Harrison Ford replaced Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan in the popular adaptations of Tom Clancy’s best-selling novels with Patriot Games (1992), the follow-up to The Hunt for Red October (1990). Ford slipped effortlessly into the role and made it his own. The result was a critical and commercial success despite Clancy’s disdain for how much the film diluted his novel. The actor reprised the role again two years later with Clear and Present Danger (1994), which was the most ambitious Ryan film at that time, expanding the scale and scope significantly while also immersing the character in morally murky waters as he became embroiled in the United States’ covert war on Colombian drug lords. The end result is an intriguing political thriller that takes a fascinatingly complex look at geopolitics while still including the slam-bang action heroics we’ve come to expect from these kinds of films.
When a close friend and his family of the President of the United States (Donald Moffat) is killed by drug traffickers because of his ties to a drug cartel, CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) is assigned to investigate. The President, clearly frustrated by the rise of the cartels in Latin America, indirectly gives his National Security Advisor James Cutter (Harris Yulin) unofficial permission to kill the men responsible.
Meanwhile, Ernesto Escobedo (Miguel Sandoval), leader of the Cali cartel, and the man who ordered the hit on the President’s friend, is advised by his trusted counsel Felix Cortez (Joaquim de Almeida) to calm down and be careful as the U.S. might retaliate. I like that Escobedo is a shrewd drug lord ruled by his emotions but smart enough to surround himself with intelligent people like Cortez who knows when to speak up and say things his boss might not want to hear and when to keep quiet, but only when it serves his own agenda. Joaquim de Almeida plays him with a cunning intelligence and in several scenes you can see his character thinking – either processing something he has just seen or learned or contemplating a future action much like an excellent chess player.
After his superior, Vice Admiral Jim Greer (James Earl Jones), is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Ryan is appointed Deputy Director of Intelligence. This doesn’t sit well with Bob Ritter (Henry Czerny), CIA Director of Operations and Cutter’s enforcer. The two men view Ryan as a “boy scout” and decide to intentionally leave him out of the loop in regards to the covert actions they plan to take against the cartels. Harris Yulin and Henry Czerny are excellent in these early scenes, exuding icy menace as men orchestrating very secretive operations on a need-to-know basis and this does not include Ryan. Czerny, in particular, excels at a no-nonsense look, going toe-to-toe with and holding his own with Ford in a confrontation that crackles with intensity. Other filmmakers in Hollywood must’ve noticed Czerny’s considerable gravitas as he would go on to give Tom Cruise a hard time in Mission: Impossible (1996).
Ritter begins to put things in motion, assembling a black-operations team led by John Clark (Willem Dafoe) that inserts itself in Colombia on search-and-destroy missions. Ryan’s life becomes complicated when the President sends him to Bogota, Colombia to find a concrete connection between his friend and the drug cartels. At Greer’s suggestion, Ryan meets with Clark in a nice little scene as Willem Dafoe presents a smiling façade but it is clear that he’s feeling Ryan out, getting a sense of how much he knows (or doesn’t). He plays a rather enigmatic character initially – we’re not sure which side he’s on and this isn’t clear until the film’s last act. For fans of acting, there is a certain thrill seeing Ford and Dafoe team-up later on. They have very different acting styles and so it is interesting to see them play off each other as the fish-out-of-water Ryan is schooled by the veteran field op Clark. Watching Dafoe in this film it’s almost as if his sergeant character from Platoon (1986) somehow managed to survive certain death and become a black-op for the U.S. government as a way of dealing with his disillusionment over the Vietnam War.
Harrison Ford turns in another solid, dependable performance playing what appears to be the last honest man in Washington, D.C. His storyline is an engrossing whodunit only that we know the answer and the enjoyment comes from watching Ryan gradually figure things out. Once he does, Ryan finds himself stuck in a moral quagmire that puts his black and white view of right and wrong to the test. Once Ford lets his moral outrage flag fly free, he ups the intensity factor exponentially, starting with a fiery confrontation with Czerny’s smug bureaucrat and ending with an even more bombastic confrontation with the President. I remember at the time the film came out that only Ford could get away with chewing out the President and then a few years later he played him in Air Force One (1997).
As he did with Patriot Games, director Phillip Noyce shows a deft hand with the action sequences as evident in the way he gradually ramps up our anticipation of a motorcade ambush with Ryan and other U.S. government officials. Noyce masterfully orchestrates the build-up and then immerses us in the chaos of the attack as explosions surround Ryan’s vehicle forcing him to take charge. There is a real sense of danger and one feels Ryan’s life is in serious danger as people around him die, including a colleague close to him, which makes it personal.
Tom Clancy was never completely thrilled with the adaptations of his novels, conceding that with The Hunt for Red October, “they didn’t screw it up too much,” and badmouthing Patriot Games in the press, which included saying that Harrison Ford was too old to play Jack Ryan. While that film performed well at the box office, it didn’t do as well as Red October domestically. It did well enough, however, for Paramount Pictures to put Clear and Present Danger in production. After making Games, director Phillip Noyce vowed never to do another Ryan film, but relented after reading Clancy’s novel.
John Milius, a right-wing friend of Clancy’s, was brought in to write the screenplay while Games was being made. By his account, Clancy approved of his draft because “I was very faithful to his book,” and that was the problem. In the book, Ryan hardly appears in the first half of the story and spends most of his time in an office while a squad of soldiers takes care of most of the action.
In March 1992, Paramount hired Red October and Games co-screenwriter Donald Stewart to re-write Milius’ script so that Ryan was front and center. This convinced Ford to sign on to the project. Not surprisingly, Clancy was not happy with Stewart’s work, telling the Washington Post that he thought it was “really awful.” He then faxed a series of memos to the production team with major and minor criticisms. He wrote, “Clear and Present Danger was the No. 1 best-selling novel of the 1980s. One might conclude that the novel’s basic story line had some quality to it. Why, then, has nearly every aspect of the book been tossed away?” Ford countered, “You do things when you’re typing that you would never do if you had to fucking stand there and deliver [the lines].”
That being said, Ford and Noyce were still not satisfied with Stewart’s work and brought in Steven Zaillian, who co-wrote Games, to make the script more faithful to the book while giving Ryan more screen-time, which makes about as much sense as it sounds. Ford also wanted the final scene changed, making it less ambiguous than it was in the book. The actor said, “It’s hard to make an ambiguous ending to a two-hour movie. The audience is not normally satisfied [with that].” Clancy and Milius were not thrilled with this change. The latter, however, did make a special deal with the producers to advise the film’s action sequences, in particular, the ambush of Ryan’s convoy in Bogota.
Once principal photography began, the production ran into several problems. Initially, the CIA and the Pentagon refused the production access to their equipment, which was important to the story, citing issues with the script. The filmmakers made the necessary alterations, which resulted in the military and the Pentagon granting full cooperation. They also received cooperation from the DEA, the FBI and the State Department. Some of the Washington, D.C. footage that was sent back to Los Angeles was damaged in an earthquake. When the production moved to Mexico, they arrived days before rebels started a revolt in the southern state of Chiapas. As a result, the government was hesitant to issue permits for the guns an explosives needed until two days before filming started.
The ambush sequence took eight weeks to prepare and the filmmakers used a specially fabricated street that ran the length of two football fields. While Ford downplayed the amount of stunts he did in the film, during this sequence he actually drove the “escape vehicle” backwards at 100 mph. Scheduled for five days, the production went over when it took eight days. A persistent fog plagued the final shooting location causing delays all the while Ford and Noyce argued over various aspects of the script, which was being rewritten on a daily basis. On top of all that, Ford was still recovering from a knee injury he sustained while filming The Fugitive (1993), which pushed all of the action sequences to the end of the shoot when everyone was tired. Finally, the scripted finale that involved an elaborate chase on the town’s rooftops that ended with a fight between Cortez and Ryan on top of a church was truncated to a helicopter rescue because they were so over schedule. Noyce said, “Certainly compared with Patriot Games, it was more stressful. It was harder to reach agreement on things.”
Clear and Present Danger was well received by critics at the time. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised Henry Czerny’s performance: “Fidgety, intense, loaded with menace, he becomes the worthiest and most sinister of Ryan’s many adversaries in this story.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley called it “absorbing, if overlong … More cerebral dilemma than an action-packed adventure, the film explodes from time to time, but mostly takes place in offices.” In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle wrote, “the film is an examination of an America committed to power, not principle, and how that moral failing translates into individual failings at the very heights of government.” Entertainment Weekly, however, gave the film a “C+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “In its way, the clear and present danger of this pop production is that we are given permission to feel good about feeling cynical about government, and we are so grateful for the sermon that we forget we don’t quite buy how this movie got to this punchline in the first place.”
The first third of Clear and Present Danger is a top-notch political thriller as Noyce expertly introduces all the major players while juggling the two significant storylines: Ritter’s black-op and Ryan’s investigation into the murder of the President’s friend. It is interesting to see how the complexity of a mainstream film like Clear and Present Danger compares to the ones made in recent years. Even the very well made Jason Bourne films are relatively straightforward in comparison.
Noyce’s film takes the time to flesh out the motivations of both the U.S. government and the drug cartel, showing how deception on each side undermines their respective goals. While Cutter and Ritter wage their own secret war, unbeknownst to Ryan, Cortez responds in kind, framing Escobedo without his knowledge and our protagonist is caught in the middle. This tricky juggling act is pulled off expertly by a powerhouse team of screenwriters that include Steve Zaillian, John Milius and Donald E. Stewart. Clear and Present Danger has just the right mix of political intrigue complete with double crosses and action sequences full of white-knuckle intensity. It’s a thinking person’s political thriller chock full of moral complexity – something that was largely absent from future Jack Ryan films and most mainstream Hollywood movies of this kind.
Fretts, Bruce. “Harrison Ford Takes on Tom Clancy…Again.” Entertainment Weekly. August 19, 1994.
Pfeiffer, Lee and Michael Lewis. The Films of Harrison Ford. Citadel Press. 2002.