RECAP: Clear and Present Danger

Clear and Present Danger (1994): Phillip Noyce

Harrison Ford became the only person to play Jack Ryan twice, when he took another turn capably bumbling through a mission for the CIA.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Colombian drug lords pose a clear and present danger to the United States, and the president decides to fight against them, in secret. 

Hero (7/10)

Harrison Ford reprises the role of bemused analyst Jack Ryan. Early in the film, Ryan, driving a Ford Taurus, arrives at the White House to meet with the president. The guard at the gate asks him if he knows where to go. “Yeah, but where do I park?” Ryan is a guy with book smarts, but maybe not street smarts, and because of that he doubts his abilities often.

But never his convictions. He’s often referred to as “a Boy Scout” because he sees the world in black and white. He believes in straight talk, which is why he promises a Senate subcommittee that the US will not commit troops to the Colombian cartel wars, and why he knocks on the front door of the movie’s equivalent of Pablo Escobar. He might be the CIA’s acting Deputy Director of Intelligence, but secrecy is not his forte.

Sometimes, though, Ryan recognizes the need for subterfuge. It takes a while, but he eventually suspects his colleague Robert Ritter of orchestrating the whole secret war. Ryan asks a hacker buddy to break into his computer. Computer theft is a serious crime, Ryan is told, so perhaps some laws are worth breaking.

We enjoy Jack Ryan because he’s relatable. He puts together puzzle pieces, then gets sent into live fire because he’s so smart. He’s lovingly naive in that way. The president asks Ryan to fly to Colombia to assess the cartel situation, and Ryan actually asks, “Who, me?”

Ryan never even gets to use a gun. The rare fighting he does is hand to hand, and he does even that sparingly. He’s not a fighter. After surviving an ambush in Bogota, he immediately flies home. No “I’ll come back when the job’s done, honey,” for Jack Ryan. They hug each other warmly at the airport when he returns to the US.

Ford is a perfect Ryan. Few actors have crafted a look of annoyance mixed with light anger like Harrison Ford, and he’s somehow turned that into a career that made him the highest grossing actor in world history.

Ryan doesn’t want to go into the field, any more than Ford wants to be in another movie. But that’s life.

Villain (5/10)

Determining a villain in this movie is a bit of a chore. I will settle on Col. Felix Cortez played by the Portuguese Phil Hartman, Joaquim de Almeida.

Cortez, formerly an intelligence advisor to Castro, upgraded to a drug cartel, for the money. His is the finger stirring many pots. Ostensibly the intelligence chief for Ernesto Escobedo, the leader of the Cali cartel, Cortez actively undermines his boss.

Escobedo is the man who provokes the United States into military action, when he murders a friend of the American president’s. Cortez was wise enough not to do that, yet he sees an opportunity to advance in his business. He meets with NSA Director James Cutter to negotiate a deal that will help him take control of the cartel.

Cortez’s position in Escobedo’s organization is analogous to Ryan’s in the CIA. He has a bevy of phones, and he uses a woman in Venezuela to connect calls to him in his various roles. He runs a coffee company that sells coffee for up to $100 per pound. That’s a front for importing cocaine and laundering money. He romances the secretary to FBI Director Jacobs. That’s a front so he can keep tabs on him, and how he learns the man is in Colombia. Like I said, lots of pots to stir.

He’s also fearless. When he learns that an American bomb destroyed the leaders of other cartels in what was called a car bomb, he sends a fax to Cutter to set up the clandestine meeting in Panama City. How did he get his fax number? He’s that good.

De Almedia is a smooth actor who never raises his voice but still gets the results he wants. He charms very well, but lacks the savage streak you might expect from such a role, although he seems more intelligence chief than security chief, eschewing torture for deal-making.

Action/Effects (3/10)

Clear and Present Danger leans closer to espionage techno-thriller than explosive fight movie. And that’s OK. But a few scenes pack firepower.

FBI Director Jacobs is sent to Colombia to negotiate with its government the dispersement of the $650 million languishing in offshore accounts that once belonged to Hardin, the president’s murdered friend. That’s a lot to handle, but it’s important because the trip ends in death.

Ryan meets Jacobs at the airport and they drive through Bogota in a convoy of four white, bulletproof Suburbans, escorted by police on motorcycles blocking cross traffic. It’s a sleek line-up, but there’s one problem, Cortez knows about it and wants to kill them.

A fake police motorcycle pops out from behind a garage door and follows the convoy, its driver capping one of the real cops. It’s unclear who leads the cars down a narrow alley, but it is clear that the locals know what’s coming. They retreat behind closed doors. Gunmen are lining the roofs along the corridor. Ryan is the only guy who notices the situation’s amiss-ness, despite gabbing with a friend about brushing teeth in South America.

Suddenly, a bus darts out at one end of the alley. Two RPGs open up on both the lead and trailing Suburbans. Both explode. Bodies fall out. Ryan and Jacobs are, so far, alive. The two remaining cars reverse hard under gun fire. One crashes into another bus that has come out to block the exit route.

More RPGs. More explosions. The cars were bulletproof, not grenade-proof. The American suits pour out of the vehicles for the cover of a doorway. Ryan and Jacobs, the latter mostly comatose, barely escape another explosion. Throughout this scene it seems like nine cars blow up, when they only had four to start with.

They got Dan! Who is Dan? He was Ryan’s friend, I think, the guy with the tooth brushing questions. I love when we are introduced to buddies who immediately die. It’s a forced relationship, and we know it. So Dan’s death meant little to me, though it meant much to Ryan.

One vehicle, despite crashing and being shot up, is still on. Chevy makes good engines, I guess. Ryan and the living suits run back to it. Ryan takes the wheel and perfectly reverses it into a doorway that ejects onto another street. Only he and Jacobs are left, and Jacobs dies as soon as he’s brought to safety. The twerp. Ryan calls his wife and tells her he’s coming home.

Other actions are more “moments” than “scenes.” Again, that’s OK. Sparse explosions are sometimes more impactful for the quiet scenes they detonate. Consider the cartel meeting. This scene begins with a fighter taking off from a carrier in the Gulf of Panama.

CIA operative Clark (Willem Defoe) is monitoring the target, a towering yellow truck parked outside the house. The cartel leaders gather in the house as the jet, and soon the falling smart bomb, fly toward the house. Clark keeps the target “painted,” even as he notices the car carrying Cortez and Escobedo speeding toward the house, late to the meeting.

The camera follows the bomb as it penetrates the clouds and just before it hits the yellow truck the movie cuts to a view from behind Clark. The house explodes, rocking the area. It’s a literally and cinematically powerful explosion. Two other explosions are singular and shake the landscape, filling the screen in one, unbroken shot: a drug plane and an underground drug factory.

Sidekicks (3/8)

Ryan gets help from a few allies. Chief among his aides is Admiral Greer (James Earl Jones) a good man but one diagnosed early on with pancreatic cancer, news that Ryan takes worse than Greer, the latter forced to cheer up the former.

Greer sets Ryan’s moral compass. He reminds him, before he dies, that he swore an oath, not to the CIA, not to the president, but to the American people. Ryan uses that impetus to save the captured troops and expose Ritter.

Also helping is Defoe’s James Clark, a pawn of the CIA, initially helping Ritter. He gathers a team of special soldiers, one of whom is a sniper so good that he can eat a quarter pounder with cheese from McDonald’s while shooting a target in California scrub while being chased by the best in the Army.

Clark is good in the field and in his hotel room command center, until his communications are cut. He joins with Ryan, despite orders from Ritter to kill him, because Clark cares about his men, not America’s men, but his men, and Ryan can help recover them.

My favorite sidekick was President Bennett (James Moffatt). He reminded me a lot of Lloyd Bridges playing McCroskey in Airplane. He resembles Bridges, for one. Also, he seems to be comically outmatched and uninformed.

In one scene he learns of the brazen strike against FBI Director Jacobs. His response is, and I’m paraphrasing, “They can’t do that. That’s SO mean. Big meanies.” He can’t believe his murdered friend was so deeply involved in the drug trade. “I knew him for 40 years.” He’s just a big buffoon.

Henchmen (4/8)

After only eight minutes I knew who the villain was. Or at least one of them. One look at Henry Czerny was all I needed. He plays Robert Ritter, CIA Chief Executive of the Director’s Secretary in Charge of Intelligence.

Ritter wants a secret war with drug cartels real bad, and he gets it. The president wants to strike at the cartels, but “the course of action I’d suggest is a course of action I can’t suggest,” he says.

The president made that statement with about all the winks in the world. Ritter made sure to get a “get out of jail free” card, a document, signed by the NSA chief, authorizing Ritter to conduct a secret, illegal war. And he’s great at it. Ritter enlists Clark to enlist a team of special ops guys to run around the Colombian jungle blowing up drug planes and drug factories.

Calling Ritter a sidekick is strange, because he’s not working with the cartels, but neither is he working with Ryan and the CIA. He’s doing his own thing, because, as he tells Ryan, “the world’s gray.” As in, not black and white apart, but black and white together.

Ritter definitely works against the US, despite what he thinks. He wants to keep Ryan, acting chief of CIA intelligence, completely in the dark about any actions they take in Colombia. It’s guys like Ritter, keeping their mouths shut, that helped 9/11 happen only seven years after Clear and Present Danger was released.

Czerny is a great cast for the role. I nailed him as a villain within one second of seeing his face. He’s perpetually on the verge of sneering, and his idea of a smile is terse lips. He has a good time watching the war, munching a snack in his office while cheering on the smart bomb that detonates in Colombia, killing dozens, including children.

Though he would never admit it, Ernesto Escobedo (Miguel Sandoval) is a henchman in Clear and Present Danger. And he’s a funny one. Though he is the head of the most powerful drug cartel in the world, basically the Osama bin Laden of the 1990s, in the movie he evokes not one shred of fear.

In one scene he is seen standing on his patio, listening to the echoes of helicopter blades, the chopper that’s inserting the commando team into Colombia. Much later, he pokes a baseball bat into Cortez’s stomach. Mildly, mildly intimidating, like cool, flavorless tea.

In the other scenes with Escobedo, here’s what he’s doing: giving horse riding advice to his nephew/son/grandson or whatever, attending a birthday party for his niece/daughter/granddaughter or whatever, attending batting practice, getting shot. I mean, the guy can hit the machine-pitch baseball with high accuracy, but is that supposed to make me quake in my boots? Not even a Little League pitcher would fear that.

Stunts (1/6)

A movie with few action scenes is going to have fewer stunts. The best came during the aforementioned shooter’s gallery car ambush in Bogota. After two cars have been blown to pieces, Ryan takes the wheel and reverses toward and into, another bus.

The camera is inside the vehicle as it crashes into that bus. Ford and the other actors are in there too. No seat belts. No airbags. Just a car crash. Sweet stunt.

Most of the other stunts are in this scene. There’s a lot of driving. The cops on bikes are falling everywhere, usually because they’ve been shot or shot at. I know the guys in the suits are bodyguards, Secret Service, or paramilitary. But watching guys dressed as investment bankers, clutching handguns, huddle in a blown out car is a comical sight.

Climax (0/6)

Ryan finally gets a chance to volunteer to be shot at. He heads down to Colombia, again, to meet Clark, again, but Clark is there to kill him. It’s an awkward moment when Clark accepts a package at the airport, tears it open to reveal a handgun, and jabs it into Ryan’s chest.

In his hotel room, Clark pretends to have killed Ryan, just so Ritter will “turn the op back on” and they can get those Americans languishing in cartel jail. Ryan of course is not really dead.

The pair hire a helicopter and a comatose pilot to search the engagement zone for soldiers. They find one, face down in the river. Clark and Ryan land and find another, the sniper Chavez, still alive and itching for blood, Clark’s blood.

Now three men, they try a neat trick. Ryan knocks on Escobedo’s door and says, “Good morning. I’d like to see Ernesto Escobedo. I don’t have an appointment.” He hands the doorman his Company card and is let in.

Now it’s Ryan’s turn to speak with a member of a drug cartel. Ryan tells Escobedo that Cortez is gunning for his job, and plays him the tape of the clandestine meeting between Cortez and NSA Director Cutter in Panama City. Escobedo is less than pleased, and they team up to confront Cortez.

We finally get to see the menacing Escobedo when he jabs a baseball bat (an aluminum bat) into his Cortez’s stomach. This menacing lasts long enough for a guy to come into the room and machine gun Escobedo and everyone else save Cortez and Ryan.

Chavez places a bullet in the gunman’s chest. Ryan and Cortez trade two blows until the latter flees, and the chase is on.

The rest of the end is a cat and mouse game of Ryan running away and guys occasionally shooting at him. More often the Americans, including Clark and the two soldiers they freed, hide from the gunmen.

Ryan and Cortez have a final fight in a firewood room. Ryan baits Cortez with the tape recording again. He surprises him and they punch each other a couple of times, until a stack of wood falls on Cortez and affords Ryan his escape to the helicopter. After Chavez snipes Cortez from the chopper, the heroes are saved.

The climax, like the rest of the movie, fails to crank up the tension action movies, and especially political thrillers, need to succeed. Ryan is not much of a fighter, but he seemed at least the equal of Cortez, and that’s a problem. Ryan, in the climax, never seemed to be in too much danger, except when he was hanging from the helicopter. When getting shot at? Nah.

Jokes (0/4)

This movie fails to elicit humor. Only a dying Greer can make you laugh. He’s always hunting for a current magazine.

Watching the movie 20 years later, the technology is humorous. It’s always tempting to laugh at enormous box computers and C-prompts, but when tempted I dial it back, because that stuff was cutting edge, even if watching characters use them is like watching Model Ts drag race.

Setting (2/4)

Back and forth, back and forth we go. Characters bounce between Washington and Colombia like the Nationals on a goodwill tour.

Mexico fills in for movie-Colombia, but the scenes there are beautiful. The special ops team roving the jungles and exploding the drug factories, are all gorgeously green. The deadliest scene, when the drug mercenaries attack the commandos, takes place in a deep gorge. A mild-mannered river flows amongst cool-looking stones and lolling green leaves.

Escobedo, the enormously wealthy drug kingpin, of course has beautiful homes. He lives in a huge compound, and every scene with him is in the most opulent area. Even his batting cage appears to be a centuries-old armory of rounded stone. His home is surrounded by stunning mountains. His house has the finest mahogany furniture. Drug kingpin life is good. Short, but good.

Ryan’s home is Escobedo’s equal in opulence, though not size. (Have you seen rents inside the Beltway?) His office, and the CIA in general, are large and in charge. All rooms appear spacious and open, much the opposite of how the CIA works.

Colombia seems like the place to live, if not for all the drug violence. America, well, whatever.

Commentary (0/2)

The only person with any sense about him in Clear and Present Danger is Cortez. He spells out the crux of the drug issue when he meets with NSA Director Cutter. In a throwaway line, a phrase to open negotiations, he asks Cutter if they can’t agree that Americans want drugs, and someone will supply them.

It’s an idea never touched on before or after. No one seems to care WHY drug cartels are killing US citizens, just that they are, and they shouldn’t do that.

The movie, perhaps inadvertently, makes the case against the War on Drugs. Cartel leaders live in palatial compounds, its employees drive slick cars. Even the grunts filling the packages work as anyone would at a desk job. No one seems to be a slave. No one is chained to a table. Instead of filing TPS reports they weigh plastic bags full of white powder.

In short, everyone’s having a grand old time selling drugs to the American market. Reagan’s war didn’t work.

One scene hints that the US even fell behind the drug cartels. Both Ryan and Cortez seek to learn who blew up the cartel meeting. The movie cuts between the two as they, alone, investigate the thousands of weapon types that could create a crater in the Colombian countryside.

Ryan flips through thousands of pages in a book. Cortez uses sophisticated computer files. Ryan is an old soul, it seems, unable or unwilling to adapt to the times. Cortez isn’t. He’s fluid. Does this contradiction spell doom for US intelligence?

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Clear and Present Danger does a good job avoiding stereotyping its non-white cast. It’s a bit funny that Escobedo is always partying, but that’s a statement of his character, and perhaps a failure to make him an intimidating villain.

Others

  • Both Ryan spouses are doctors. How often do they frustrate callers when they ask for “Dr. Ryan” on the phone, only to want the other Dr. Ryan?
  • One subtitle indicates Dulles airport to be in Washington, DC. I’ve been to Dulles, and I can’t believe it could be any more not in the capital.
  • (1) Cinematographer Donald McAlpine often uses interesting points of view. In one scene, when Ryan enters the Oval Office, it is through his first person point of view. The shot was interesting, but it was not the first time Ryan had been in the Oval Office in the movie, so it’s placement was interesting, too. Also, twice in the final scene, the camera appears attached to the firing guns of Clark and Chavez, as if we are seeing the gun’s point of view, as if the guns are characters. Had these shots been used more often, the movie could have generated a distinctive style. Instead the shots were blink-and-you-might-miss.
  • You can see cocaine raining down after the drug plane blows up.
  • (-1) The ending: After Ryan returns to the US he meets with the president in the Oval Office. This is the only time he gets mad, when the president tries to convince Ryan to take the blame for the incident. Ryan is enraged that the president would dishonor the memories of the soldiers who died solely to maintain some political capital. The two exchange How dare yous, and Ryan threatens to tell the Senate all about it. The president says he won’t, because he’d rather use the incident later for some political gain of his own. Ryan says he won’t. In the final scene, Ryan swears an oath before testifying to the Senate…nothing. Roll credits. Fo’ rill? Did he give up the prez? We don’t know.
Summary (25/68): 37%

Clear and Present Danger is neither clear nor present. At 2 hours, 21 minutes, the movie is a mess, struggling to choose a chief bad guy and chief plot line.

Sometimes drug kingpin Escobedo is the villain. Unless it’s his number two, Cortez. Or maybe it’s CIA Deputy Director Ritter. Or could it even be the president?

The movie would have worked well as a miniseries. All the threads of plot could have been fleshed out and resolved. Alternatively, the movie could have lost some scenes, or tightened them into one section. I’m thinking specifically of the commandos raiding the countryside.

Too much or too little, the movie fails to draw tension.