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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 11/13/02

The Sum of All Fears
Special Collector's Edition - 2002 (2002) - Paramount

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Sum of All Fears: Special Collector's Edition Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B+/B-

Specs and Features

123 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at ??), Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary (with director Phil Alden Robinson and cinematographer John Lindey), audio commentary (with the director and novelist Tom Clancy), A Cautionary Tale documentary (broken into two sections: Casting (13 mins) and Production (17 mins) - both 16x9, DD 2.0), 5 visual effects featurettes (Carrier Attack, A-4, Hospital, Motorcade and Helicopter (3-9 mins each) - all 16x9, DD 2.0), theatrical trailer (letterbox only, DD 2.0), animated film-themed menus with sound and music, scene access (17 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 and 2.0) and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

I should probably confess right up front, that when I first heard that Ben Affleck was going to be stepping into the role of CIA analyst Jack Ryan, which had been filled out so well on film by Harrison Ford, I cringed. Like almost everyone else who had grown to love Paramount's big screen adaptations of Tom Clancy's paperback political thrillers, I figured pigs would fly before Affleck would pull the roll off. So as I left the theater after seeing The Sum of All Fears, I must admit that I found myself keeping a rather nervous eye on the sky. I'll be damned if Ben didn't click after all.

The Sum of All Fears, based somewhat loosely on the novel of the same name, finds a now much younger Jack Ryan, a decidedly bright but junior analyst on the Agency's Russia Desk, drawn into much greater political events when the aging Russian leader suddenly drops dead. It seems Ryan's written a rather insightful monograph on the Russian President's likely successor - a man everyone in Washington is now desperate to get a handle on - and so he's called upon by CIA Director Cabot (Morgan Freeman) to help gather intelligence. That intelligence gathering soon involves spur-of-the-moment secret meetings with the President of the United States (James Cromwell), trips to the Kremlin and inspections of former Soviet nuclear weapons plants, much to the chagrin of Ryan's new girlfriend, Cathy (Bridget Moynahan), who thinks he's just a historian. But with the help of field agent John Clark (Liev Schreiber), Ryan and Cabot soon uncover a secret plot by Neo Nazis to explode a nuclear weapon on American soil... and thus get the world's two great powers to destroy each other. And when that plot eventually plays out, Ryan suddenly realizes that he's the only person in possession of all the facts... the only person who can pull the world back from the verge of destruction.

The Sum of All Fears, despite the liberties it takes with Clancy's original novel and the re-imagining of the Jack Ryan character, is a damn good thriller. It delivers everything you expect from a Clancy film - abundant political maneuvering, megalomaniacs who want to destroy the world, and good cloak and dagger action. It's also surprisingly intelligent, infusing its characters with more than the usual sense of humanity and likability. All of the actors deliver in their roles. In addition to Affleck, who makes a surprisingly believable CIA analyst (being about the right age and disposition for such an occupation), Freeman and Cromwell flesh out their supporting parts well. Bridget Moynahan is likable as Ryan's love interest, and Liev Schreiber is excellent as Clark (a character Clancy fans know is very important in the series). But even the smaller parts are well cast, from Ciarán Hinds (as Russian President Nemerov) to Michael Byrne (as a Russian operative on Nemerov's staff) and Philip Baker Hall (as the American Secretary of Defense). Bottom line... this film is much better than anyone (certainly myself) expected and, as such, it comes as a very nice surprise indeed.

One thing that I think is important to note here, is that you should prepare yourself for the fact that a nuke does eventually end up going off on American soil. Some of you might consider that a spoiler, but the fact is, the studio made a very conscious decision to reveal that plot point in the film's marketing campaign, no doubt so that jittery, post-9/11 moviegoers could steel themselves up for it. If you have any knowledge of the original novel, you'll know that it's coming anyway. Speaking for myself, I know it was a lot easier to take seeing that happen on screen with the knowledge that it was going to happen in advance. It could easily have seemed like crass and tasteless exploitation if it had simply been sprung on audiences, so I'm glad the studio took the approach they did. Nevertheless, when the time came in the film for it to happen (and trust me when I say that it's chillingly clear when it's coming), the theater audience I saw this film with got VERY uncomfortable. It's still tough for me to watch on DVD. A year or two ago, an event like this would have seemed unthinkable. But sadly, we now know that it's all too possible given the realities of the 21st Century.

Moving on to the disc, the video quality is quite good, presented here in anamorphic widescreen. Contrast is excellent, with deep, dark blacks and sufficient (but not quite abundant) shadow detail. Color, in particular, is rich and accurate, from flesh tones in sunlight to the vibrant electronic blues, reds and greens of display monitors in secret government control rooms. There is a degree of film grain visible, but it's nothing you didn't see in theaters. There's also a little bit too much edge enhancement, that you'll particularly notice on subtitles during the opening, and when Russian, Arab and other foreign characters are speaking in their native tongues. But it's never enough to become distracting. In all, this is a very good representation of the theatrical experience.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is about on par with the video. This isn't an especially active surround mix for most of the film, given that much of the intrigue is conveyed in dialogue. But there is a lot of subtle ambiance if you listen for it. And when the action heats up, there's plenty of good direction play and panning, all of which is natural and believably presented. Dialogue is clear and well defined in the mix, the film's soundtrack is effective without ever becoming overwhelming and bass is reliably solid. It's certainly not the most dynamic 5.1 soundtrack you've ever heard on DVD. But when this surround mix needs to pack a punch, it catches you in the jaw with a hefty right hook and doesn't let up.

In terms of special features, the disc includes a number of documentary featurettes. First up is a piece called A Cautionary Tale, which has been broken into two sections, no doubt to avoid crossing the 30-minute featurette to documentary line which then requires a lot of legal and financial complications for a studio. The first part is Casting, while the second is Production. Both are exactly what you expect, except that there's actually interesting information imparted. The trouble the franchise has had over the years is addressed, along with why Harrision Ford finally decided to bow out of the role of Jack Ryan. I've heard that it was actually Harrison who contacted Affleck and suggested that he approach Paramount about stepping into the role, but the story here is more generically told. Affleck "heard the role was available" and expressed his interest. In any case, Affleck's star power proved attractive enough that the studio bit on the idea. That, of course, required a lot of rethinking of the film series. After all, Affleck is much younger than Ford, and so there would be no continuity with the earlier films. But it also proved an unexpected asset to the franchise. With Affleck, the whole series could begin again with much more long-term potential. Both parts of the feature include interview footage with virtually every major player in the film, with the exception of Tom Clancy (but he does make an appearance on this disc - more on that in a minute). Affleck, Freeman, Cromwell and all the other featured actors provide anecdotes, and the director and other production people lend their two cents as well. There's even footage of a real CIA staffer who helped to lend authenticity to the production, along with lots of on-the-set footage.

The remainder of the featurettes look at various aspects of the visual effects produced for the film, with breakdowns of each of the major effects sequences, including the detonation of the rogue nuke. All in all, there's about a half hour of material on the effects and it's all interesting and worth looking at. All of the featurettes on the disc are presented in anamorphic widescreen, with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. There's also a theatrical trailer, presented in letterbox-only widescreen (strange given that everything else here is anamorphic).

But the real treat on this DVD is the audio commentary with director Phil Alden Robinson and novelist Tom Clancy. You know you're in for a good listen when, right at the start, Clancy introduces himself as "the guy who wrote the book that they ignored". He's got a real sort of curmudgeonly air about him, but you can't help but like the guy. A couple of things he says during the course of the track seems to put Robinson on the defensive, making for very interesting listening. Clancy's clearly having fun pointing out all of the places where the film diverges from his novel, or places where the film gets the real-world details wrong. One thing is abundantly clear - Clancy knows his sh_t with regard to the military and intelligence community. Back when I was a video director, I did some work for a military contractor in Minnesota, and had the opportunity to meet Clancy in person at a defense industry trade show in Washington DC. We were both trying our hand on an F-18 flight simulator in the McDonnell Douglas booth (for the record, I put a big, F-18 shaped hole in the deck of a simulated aircraft carrier as I tried to land - Clancy seemed to have no trouble). It was amazing how many Admirals and other very high ranking military personnel flocked to the guy wherever he went, swapping stories with him and inviting him to various functions. Clancy's got access and he's a great listen - the kind of guy you'd love to have a few beers with. Not bad for someone who used to work in the insurance business.

The other audio commentary is much more standard. Robinson and D.P. John Lindey talk about the production and their approach to the filming of each scene. They address the staging and the various cinematic choices they made along the way, and it becomes obvious that Alden is very thoughtful about his craft. But while it's all interesting enough, it's nothing we haven't heard a thousand times before in these kind of commentaries. And it's not nearly as interesting as the Clancy track.

In the end, The Sum of All Fears probably isn't going to thrill every fan of the Harrison Ford era of Tom Clancy films. And, because of the changes in the story itself, it probably isn't going to thrill fans of the original novel either. But if you take it for what it is, The Sum of All Fears works. It's a smart, well crafted thriller that isn't afraid to land a few pretty tough punches. And it's a surprisingly effective re-imagining of the Tom Clancy film series. If Ben Affleck and Live Schreiber stick with this franchise, the films to come could be well worth the long years of waiting. Word is, The Cardinal of the Kremlin is the Clancy novel on the table for film adaptation. And maybe in fifteen or twenty years, if Affleck's fee (and ego) hasn't grown too large, they'll try to tackle Clancy's mammoth Executive Orders. Can you imagine Affleck as President Ryan? Just maybe...

Bill Hunt

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