With Paramount's Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit on the horizon, it is appropriate to revisit the four older Ryan thrillers. Culled from Tom Clancy's novels, each film has its merits and all are worth watching. The series has thus far had three leading men - Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck - and Chris Pine is set to play the sometimes CIA agent Ryan in Shadow Recruit. This four-disc Blu-ray collection is basically the same set released on HD-DVD way back in 2007 and tech wise, the discs are kind of dated. Even so, this is a reasonably priced bundle, and the films hold up to repeat viewings.
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The first Jack Ryan film - The Hunt for Red October - is the best. Baldwin's Ryan is a CIA analyst who discovers photographic evidence of a Soviet submarine with a silent propulsion engine that is capable of slipping undetected into the waters around major American cities. At the helm is Capt. Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), whose decisively aggressive actions with the sub's nuclear payload set Washington and Moscow on edge. Ryan believes Ramius is simply trying to defect, but the top brass refuses to believe Ramius' actions are anything but an overt threat to the United States. Thus begins a tense impasse between a world superpower and a submarine under radio silence. Complicating matters is the circling Soviet Navy, under orders to stop Ramius from starting World War III.
Baldwin is an interesting Ryan, and the actor plays the character as an affable intellect who is over his head in world military politics. Connery is a formidable presence as morally ambiguous Ramius, and the supporting cast, including Sam Neill as Ramius' executive officer, flourishes under John McTiernan's (Die Hard; lying to the FBI) skilled direction. The Hunt for Red October is a claustrophobic post-Cold War thriller with an interesting narrative structure. What begins as two separate stories converges in an exciting finale of underwater war games. When Baldwin and Connery meet, the film devolves into a tense standoff with the Soviet Navy. Well acted and expertly paced, The Hunt for Red October is how one should translate fiction to the silver screen. ****1/2 (out of *****)
Ford took over for Baldwin in the sequel, Patriot Games, which is directed by Phillip Noyce (Salt). More expansive and land-locked than its predecessor, Patriot Games finds Ryan retired from the CIA and on vacation with his wife (Anne Archer) and daughter (Thora Birch) in London. He interrupts an assassination attempt on a member of the British Royal Family (James Fox) by Sean Miller (Sean Bean), a radical who broke away from the Irish Republican Army. Ryan kills Miller's brother, attracting attention of the worst kind from the terrorist. When Miller escapes from custody, he starts a war on Ryan's own family.
The best of the two Ford films, Patriot Games is an entertaining ride from London to the Maryland coast to a Libyan radical training camp. Ryan returns to the CIA to protect his family and tracks Miller across the globe. Bean is a stoic villain, and it's hard to argue with the family-in-peril plot. The set-up is a tad contrived, but you'll forget about that as soon as Ryan starts hunting Miller. The only R-rated film of the bunch, Patriot Games is probably the most intense and violent of the series. Ford is my favorite Ryan of the bunch, and I absolutely believed the actor would "fucking destroy" anyone between him and his family. Samuel L. Jackson pops up to help Ryan, as does James Earl Jones as recurring character Vice Admiral Jim Greer. **** (out of *****)
The third Ryan film, Clear and Present Danger, is the weakest thanks to its bloated 141-minute running time and a lack of suspense. The President of the United States (Donald Moffat) deems Colombian drug cartels a "clear and present danger" to the United States after cartel operatives murder his longtime friend. Ryan, acting as the CIA's Deputy Director of Intelligence, requests Congressional funding to combat the cartels but gives his word that no troops will be deployed. Opposing interests, including the CIA's Director of Operations (Henry Czerny), deploy a team led by John Clark (Willem Dafoe) to carry out deadly combat missions against the cartels. One cartel leader, Ernesto Escobedo (Miguel Sandoval), responds against the American aggression with deadly force.
The core conflict involves government deception in Colombia, and Ryan is tricked into participating in unauthorized operations. This political subterfuge is less interesting than it sounds, and it is clear from the get-go that Ryan is being duped. Escobedo is kept at arm's length, and the film spends too little time focusing on the ground troops caught in the crossfire to elicit much of a response when they start dying. There is way too much yammering about CIA clearance and political necessity in the midsection of Noyce's film, so Clear and Present Danger feels much longer than it is. Things pick up when Ford and Dafoe meet, but Clear and Present Danger never achieves the tension or dramatic intrigue of the rest of the series. *** (out of *****)
People like to shit all over The Sum of All Fears because it stars Affleck, who was at the time making awful films like Gigli and Reindeer Games. This bellyaching is misplaced, as The Sum of All Fears is quite good. A villain's league comprised of South African arms dealer Olson (Colm Feore), neo-Nazi Richard Dressler (Alan Bates) and a couple of nameless terrorist hangers-on provide the most global threat in the series after they discover and refine enough uranium to build a nuclear bomb. The plot is dense and twisty: After a radical new Russian president (Ciaran Hinds, intense as ever) takes office, America observes unexpected troop movements and work at Russian bomb-making plants. The CIA sends operative John Clark (Liev Schreiber) to investigate chatter of missing nuclear scientists, while Ryan tries to convince military higher-ups that Russia's new president is not behind the nuclear threat.
The film surprises with its dramatic twists, and The Sum of All Fears is the first of the Ryan thrillers that puts entire countries in danger. The political tension between the U.S. and Russia, which spills over onto back-channel hotlines and into the press, is suspenseful in all the ways Clear and Present Danger is not. Hinds is at once frighteningly unpredictable and reassuringly mortal as the Russian president, and Morgan Freeman gives a memorable performance as CIA Director William Cabot. The supporting cast, including Bridget Moynahan as Ryan's love interest and James Cromwell as POTUS, performs well. The scenes shot at Montreal's Olympic Stadium are well edited and frightening, and director Phil Alden Robinson mixes human drama and global action into one well-shot package. **** (out of *****)
Paramount's catalog tiles have been pretty hit-or-miss in terms of picture quality. Unfortunately, it's evident from even a quick spin that these transfers are pulled from dated masters. Do they look better than the previously available DVDs? Yes, but the quality only ranges from decent to fairly bad in some scenes. The Hunt for Red October receives an OK 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that manages not to completely muck up cinematographer Jan de Bont's work. There are scenes of impressive detail, particularly in close-ups, and black levels are acceptable despite the tight quarters. I noticed a bit of banding here and there, and colors range from bold and nicely saturated to somewhat washed out. McTiernan is known to have shot some fairly grainy films, and, while some grain remains here, Paramount has definitely used noise reduction and edge enhancement on this master. The evidence is in the waxy faces and smooth backgrounds. Fortunately, the digital tinkering isn't as bad here as on the other films. *** (out of *****).
The 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image for Patriot Games is not very good. There are times when detail is uncharacteristically strong and the image sports nice texture and depth. Most of the time, however, the image falters under some awful noise reduction and edge halos. There are some very, very noticeable artifacts throughout. Grain is clumpy and distracting, mosquito noise is present in many scenes, and Ryan's family looks like wax figurines with their slick, featureless faces. Black levels are only OK, and colors are usually drab and dull. ** (out of *****). Clear and Present Danger has a moderately better 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image that still suffers from the use of noise reduction and miscellaneous digital tinkering. Fortunately, the artifacts and anomalies aren't nearly as bad as on the last disc, and a couple of scenes in Colombia, with their bright, boldly saturated colors and abundant detail, are downright impressive. A moderate improvement but nothing special. *** (out of *****).
At just a decade old, I'd expect The Sum of All Fears to look pretty decent in high definition. Sadly, that's not the case. The 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is riddled with specks and dirt and again suffers from ugly noise reduction. Detail is sporadically good, and there are a couple of scenes where grain and texture appear natural. Black levels are decent and skin tones accurate, but there are plenty of edge halos, clumps of grain and defects like shimmering and banding. **1/2 (out of *****).
The transfers are mostly shit, but the lossless soundtracks fair better. I'd rate all four soundtracks at **** (out of *****). The Hunt for Red October receives a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD mix with solid effects work and good clarity. Dialogue is clear and the subwoofer supports the late-film war games. There are French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks and English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles available. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD mix on Patriot Games is quite aggressive. Bullets whiz through the sound field and a car crash rocks the subwoofer. Dialogue and score are balanced appropriately. There are French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks and English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles available.
Clear and Present Danger also receives a good 5.1 Dolby TrueHD mix, with French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks and English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles available. The war zone combat is boisterous and Oval Office dialogue crisp. Rounding out the set is The Sum of All Fears, which gets the same 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track with added French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks and English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles. The "big bang" is loud and I appreciated the skillful balance of score, dialogue and effects. Ambient effects make good use of the surround speakers and Affleck and Freeman are heard loud and clear.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This four-disc set is packed inside a slipbox. Each disc receives its own case, and the presentation mirrors the already available individual releases. On The Hunt for Red October you get a mediocre Commentary by Director John McTiernan; Beneath the Surface - Cast and Crew Interviews (29:00/SD); and the film's Theatrical Trailer (1:41/HD). Patriot Games only includes Patriot Games Up Close - Cast and Crew Interviews (25:14/SD) and the Theatrical Trailer (2:31/HD). On Clear and Present Danger extras include documentary Behind the Danger (26:34/SD) and the Theatrical Trailer (2:39/HD). Finally, on Sum of All Fears you get a two-part documentary, which includes The Making Of The Sum of All Fears (29:55/SD) and Creating Reality: The Visual Effects of The Sum of All Fears (27:48/SD). Along for good measure are a Commentary with Director Phil Alden Robinson and a Commentary with Director Phil Alden Robinson and Author Tom Clancy. Finally, there's a Theatrical Trailer (2:24/HD).
The first four Jack Ryan films are available as a Blu-ray bundle at a reasonable price. The Hunt for Red October leads the pack, with Clear and Present Danger bringing up the rear. All are worth watching, and it's nice to have them in one package. You could do worse than an evening spent with these political thrillers. Unfortunately, the HD visuals leave a lot to be desired. The lossless audio is better and there are a few decent supplements for each movie. This set is Recommended.
The Hunt for Red October:
Clear and Present Danger:
The Sum of All Fears:
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.