The political zinger zone of Tom Clancy might just be the slyest of Pentagon pop-prop delivery systems—righteous naïveté draped in techno-sophistication. His Boy Scout hero Jack Ryan has served as a kind of espionage Prince Myshkin, supplying ingenuous heart to balance the executive-military complex’s greed, unruly might, and strategized self-justification. As embodied by the stolid Harrison Ford, you could almost buy Ryan—even if he seemed unduly ignorant, in Clear and Present Danger, of what fueled the Colombian drug trade. But in The Sum of All Fears, Ryan is reduced, as per Ben Affleck, to a nerdy post-teen schmoozing around the CIA cube farm and bedding nubiles. Forget the Ford era’s semi-adult tenor—innocence is now in preposterous narrative supply, and the system Ryan serves plays by a hoary Cold War hornbook.
Clancy’s tale this time around involves a single misappropriated Soviet warhead—shades of The Peacemaker—stolen as part of a World War III ignition plan by a rogue cadre of international neo-Nazis. The exposition getting us to a Super Bowl-hosting Baltimore for the bomb’s detonation (the neo-Nazis knew the Ravens would make it that far?) is ponderously rife with Affleck’s fresh-faced nudnik playing the stooge to Morgan Freeman’s seasoned intel pro. Thereafter, the film’s run-through of a misguided U.S.-Russian escalation targets a demographic somewhere between Fail-Safe and WarGames.
The more concrete crisis is the sickening, post-9-11 spectacle of a major American city decimated by what we’re constantly told is a “small” atomic explosion. The Paramount execs quite rightly judged that such a cataclysm would be far from mindless summer entertainment as we used to know it, and so they left it out—all we see is a few blast-swept outlands and a spindly mushroom cloud. The jerry-rigged result is a trite espionage thriller without the thrills but with a lingering measure of nausea.
As for Mel Brooks’s 1968 air-burst rip The Producers, no bets were hedged and no throats left unthrottled. An inevitable re-release, Brooks’s magnum opus is still a ferocious gale of bulldozing Jewish mockery, dominated by Zero Mostel’s comb-over juggernaut. However familiar, it delivers like a shorted slot machine; memories of the tame and safely distant stage version will evaporate in the runway turbulence of Mostel’s spittle-spray-in-your-eye performance. In fact, the more time passes the more combustible Brooks’s burlesque of Nazism and the post-war remnants of old-school Jewish showbiz seems. Accompanying is the 1963 short The Critic—between them, Brooks owned the decade in vicious lampoon.