Let's get the sequel appraisal out of the way up front — "Clear and Present Danger" isn't quite up to the very high standard set by "The Hunt for Red October," but it's a genuine cut above "Patriot Games."
Harrison Ford reprises his role as CIA analyst Jack Ryan, who has been kicked upstairs in this new movie. And if you remember the climax of "Patriot Games," the first question you might ask is, did they have a boy or a girl? It's not an issue in this new movie, but you will find out.
As "Clear and Present Danger" opens, Ryan is assigned to fill in for ailing CIA chief James Greer (James Earl Jones), just as the United States declares a major war on drugs.
But while Ryan is promising a Senate committee that the money he's asking for won't be used to fund American troops in South America, another CIA deputy director, operations chief Robert Ritter (Henry Czerny) is making Ryan a liar.
"He's a Boy Scout," grouses Ritter, as he describes Ryan's, naive goody-goody attitude . . . at least in his own view. We, of course, see Ryan as the kind of straight-arrow government official we would like to see cloned and put behind every desk in Washington.
Ritter and National Security Advisor James Cutter (Harris Yulin) conspire to approve a covert operation, with vague presidential approval (Donald Moffat is the requisite puppet president).
Ritter hires the mysterious Mr. Carter (Willem Dafoe), a former CIA operative who now works as a freelance "field contractor," to head up the project. So, Carter assembles a small but effective army and has them open fire on Colombian drug lords, covering their tracks to give the impression that the various cartels are attacking each other.
Gradually, Ryan uncovers the clandestine operation and eventually travels down south himself, where he becomes Indiana Jones during the film's big action finale — plunging into gun battles and even dangling from a hovering helicopter. Right.
Despite these somewhat out-of-place heroics for Ford's character, "Clear and Present Danger" is a most satisfying effort, a fast ride with an intelligent narrative and witty dialogue. It also accomplishes the near-impossible — it makes Tom Clancy's technical yarn easier to understand. Oh, it's still complicated, with double and triple-crosses every step of the way. But director Philip Noyce does a masterful job of keeping things easy to understand without letting it become simple-minded.
This is accomplished with sharp editing, exciting music and a keen eye for pacing. But let's not shortchange the three screenwriters — Donald Stewart ("Patriot Games"), Steven Zaillian ("Schindler's List," "Searching for Bobby Fischer," "Awakenings") and John Milius ("Conan the Barbarian," "The Wind and the Lion," "Jeremiah Johnson").
My only real complaint, aside from the aforementioned Indy Jones cliffhanging elements, is that until the final third, the movie doesn't have much of a sense of humor. A few more tension-releasing laughs in the first two thirds would have helped things considerably.
But audiences won't complain. There is plenty of hair-raising action, whether it's huge explosions in the rain forest or suspense in CIA headquarters, where Noyce builds a surprising amount of tension with the use of computers.
The cast is filled with familiar faces in peripheral roles — Hope Lange, Ann Magnuson, Dean Jones, and reprising their roles as Ryan's wife and daughter, Anne Archer and Thora Birch, respectively. But the acting kudos go to Benjamin Bratt as an Army sniper, who gives depth to a very small part, and Miguel Sandoval and Joaquim de Almeida, as the chief drug lords, who give their characters a genuine richness.
Dafoe is very good, as a character with divided loyalties playing both sides of the fence, and James Earl Jones lends heft and poignancy to his all too-brief moments.
But this is, of course, Harrison Ford's movie, and his understated performance is perfect. From bewilderment to righteous indignation, Ford hits all the right notes, and audiences will identify with his sense of outrage.
To be sure, this is a cynical government paranoia thriller, but thanks to first-rate writing and directing, it's also much more.
"Clear and Present Danger" is rated PG-13 for a fair amount violence, as well as some profanity.