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SPYING TINGLER

Clear and Present Danger is only a movie. In real life, pundits of all political stripes are complaining that the Central Intelligence Agency has grown clumsy and mendacious, that it couldn't find double-agent Aldrich Ames under its very nose, that it's lazy and self-serving.

But don't tell that to Tom Clancy, Harrison Ford or the people at Paramount. Danger is the third bestseller-turned-movie featuring CIA hero Jack Ryan, and he remains a beacon of patriotic light who's great with his mind and decent with his fists. When it comes to the nut-cutting, Jack doesn't hesitate to challenge anyone--including his own bosses and crooks in the White House.

Isn't it pretty to think so?
The realities of spookdom aside, the picture is a crackling-good entertainment in which humble, incorruptible Jack now finds himself tangled up with Colombian drug lords, a band of U.S. commandos conducting a secret war in the rain forest and a couple of scoundrels who sit close to the president. In other words, the 1989 Clancy techno-thriller director Phillip Noyce and three screenwriters have adapted descends straight from the headlines--Watergate, Iran/Contra, Cali Cartel--but it's pinned to the soul of its pulp superhero.

The formula has worked before. The Hunt for Red October (in which Alec Baldwin played Ryan) and Patriot Games grossed $350 million, and there's no reason to believe action-hungry audiences won't storm the gates once more. Once more, they'll also get the Clancy quota of cracked computer codes, state-of-the-art missiles and intercepted phone conversations to go along with the intrigues and the derring-do. Actually, all these gizmos work a little better on the screen than they do on the page: Clancy's books read a bit like technical manuals, but they translate well.

It falls to the likable Ford to personalize things, and he's up to the task again. From the hushed corridors of Washington to the chaotic streets of Bogota, Jack Ryan searches for truth, but he never crows about it. He could, though. After drug dealers kill an influential American industrialist and his family aboard a yacht, Ryan outflanks a corrupt CIA chieftain (Henry Czerny) and a baseball-crazy cartel kingpin (Miguel Sandoval) to join forces with a dashing ops specialist (Willem Dafoe) in the jungles. Joaquim de Almeida makes for a formidable villain called Cortez, but Donald Moffat wins supporting-player honors as an imperious U.S. president trying to avert a major national scandal: The craggy, polished Moffat can talk the talk and walk the walk better than Henry Fonda.

No use revealing any more plot or recounting any more explosions. Jack Ryan usually gets his man--even if it does take nearly two and a half hours.

Meanwhile, the future of the series looks a bit shaky. With his Cold War won, his international terrorists dispatched and his cocaine kings put asunder, what dangers remain for Tom Clancy's hero to conquer? Maybe health care.

 
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