It used to be that there seemed to be a curse about movies shot in Montreal. While some ended up being pretty good (“Snake Eyes”, “The Score”), most were bad (“The Bone Collector”, “Eye of the Beholder”) or worse (“Battlefield Earth”). Now comes “The Sum of All Fears”, which has Montreal standing for Russia, Washington and Vienna, and the Superbowl scene was not filmed in Baltimore but at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, which prompted many to wish that the crew would really blow up the ugly, defective big O and rid us of it for good! And with this picture, the curse seems to be lifted, as it’s a great movie. And I’m not only saying this because I’m in it!*

The film is based on the fifth novel in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series, a follow-up to “The Hunt for Red October”, “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger”, which were all made into movies… Except that it somehow diverges from that continuity, as thirty-something Ben Affleck steps into the shoes of old man Harrison Ford (who himself stepped in after Alec Baldwin). This has peeved off some purists, but I think it works. As Affleck told EW, “The idea that was appealing to me was to do a ‘Batman: Year One’ kind of thing, to explore the origin.”. That’s not quite accurate, as the movie is set after the others (in the early ’00s), but in spirit it is.

Instead of a weary, ageing CIA boss, we get a fast-thinking young cat who has yet to learn about what can’t be done. And to fit into the book’s plot, the character of Cabot (played by Morgan Freeman) is brought in to serve as that experienced CIA man on the President (James Cromwell)’s speed dial. This sets up an enjoyable dynamic between the two-sides-of-the-coin protagonists, with Cabot being calm and playful and Ryan acting stressed and self-important. This might sound inappropriate to a film dealing with serious political and military issues, but the ‘comedy’ is confined to the early scenes, before everyone loses the capacity to laugh. The other major liberty taken in adapting Clancy’s thriller is that the terrorists are Nazis instead of Arabs. I think this was the right move, as getting into the Middle East conflicts would have made for a whole other movie. Rich, Eurotrash fascists might be conventional villains, but it is indeed easier to corner them as the bad guys.

The story has Cabot bringing in Ryan, an analyst who wrote a report on a Russian politician (Nemrov? Nimrod?!) who has replaced the recently deceased President, to go inspect that country’s weapon disarming facilities and check upon the mess in Tchetchenia. All are unaware that the real menace lies in a discarded nuke head which the Nazis are planning to detonate during the Superbowl in hope that the Americans will assume that it was the Russian’s work and the two superpowers will destroy each other. This leads to an escalation in warfare which could easily lead to massive death and destruction…

What is it that makes “The Sum of All Fears” so damn good? First, I don’t think we can ignore how particularly relevant it now feels. It was produced before the attacks on the World Trade Center (the book actually dates back to 1991) but still, hearing talk of “Ground Zero” or of the President being airborne and seeing a column of smoke over acity and people walking through fiery streets with ashes floating around brings back haunting memories of 9/11. Then, great kudos must be forwarded to Phil Alden Robinson’s sophisticated but non-sensationalistic direction. Robinson never gets off on showing stuff blowing up. The nuclear blast, for instance, is soberly done, with the devastation mostly implied instead of being graphically depicted.

Furthermore, while movies like “Pearl Harbor” go downhill after their big disaster scene, here it’s the opposite. Things grow more and more tense, and the audience is on the edge of their seats all through the nail-biting climax and the operatic, Godfather-style coda. All this is so effective thanks to not only Robinson’s craftsmanship but also to the uniformly solid acting, especially by the older actors playing the President and his closest advisors, namely Cromwell, Freeman, Philip Baker Hall and Ron Rifkin. Also notable are Liv Schreiber as a CIA agent who knows how to get things done, Bridget Moynahan as Ryan’s doctor girlfriend and, of course, Affleck himself, who shows much charisma and conviction. As for the romance between him and Moynahan, don’t worry, it’s totally non-intrusive. The tender scenes early only serve as a comfortable home life for Ryan to be jerked out of, and possibly never see again. Basically, it gives the drama a more personal human dimension.

Would “The Sum of All Fears” have been as gripping if we didn’t live in a world where the President of the United States warns the population every week that other major terrorist attacks are not only possible but inevitable? I can’t say, but what I do know is that few recent movies had me so riveted.

*About three quarters into it, there’s a scene in a half-destroyed, generator-lit hospital. I’m one of the extras in severe burn make-up. 🙂