REVIEW: When a U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat intercepts a luxury yacht that has been taken over by drug runners, they discover the bodies of a wealthy businessman and his family. Worse, they are good friends with the Unites States President, who, on receiving the news, makes a call to action, calling the persistent flood of drugs and the violence it incurs a clear and present danger to the people of his country, ostensibly giving is National Security Advisor James Cutter (Harris Yulin) the go ahead to hunt and kill the cartel involved. Meanwhile, the investigation falls into the hands of CIA analyst Jack Ryan, who is then promoted to Deputy Director of Intelligence after his superior, James Greer (James Earl Jones) is stricken with cancer. Ryan goes before congress and asks for additional funding in Columbia to combat the drug trade. What he doesn’t realize is that without his knowledge, those very funds are backing a black-ops mission controlled by Cutter and led by John Clarke (Willem Dafoe), a mercenary for hire who puts together an elite team of military soldiers and snipers to infiltrate Columbia and hit the drug cartel on their own ground.
Directed by Phillip Noyce, who also directed the previous entry, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger returns to a more politically-charged story with some very deep and complex themes, which serves to improve this entry over its predecessor. With action taking place on three major stages, we have the suits-and-tie battle in Washington where Ryan uncovers the corruption and tries to stay one step ahead of the firestorm that is certainly coming, giving the film its intrigue; in Columbia, we have the insertion team silently taking out targets and causing massive disruption to drug lord Ernesto Escobedo (Miguel Sandoval), and we also have shady deals being made between Escobedo and Cutter, that leave the black-ops team in series jeopardy. Add to this a hungry intelligence officer named Félix Cortez (Joaquim de Almeida) who has plans of his own, and there is a lot to follow. But Noyce brilliantly overlaps all these stories with some excellent storytelling devices and direction, always keeping the viewer on the right track. For example, when the black-ops team enters Columbian airspace on low flying Sikorsky MH-60L Black Hawks, Noyce cuts to Escobedo’s hacienda many kilometers away where the drug lord is walking about the patio on a quiet evening. He stops and tunes his ears to the faint shudder in the night air. It’s almost imperceptible, but it’s familiar, and on Escobedo’s face, we see everything from fear, acceptance, and anger. We know everything without a word being spoken. It’s fantastic storytelling.
The film succeeds as an action thriller mostly because of some excellent set pieces, most particularly an ambush on the back streets of Bogota. Expertly staged and photographed, the scene serves as example of how skilled Noyce is in creating tension. The build up to the actual attack is as satisfying as the ambush. There are some outstanding supporting characters as well, notably Defoe’s Clarke who suffers a betrayal that costs him dearly. Defoe keeps things subdued and efficient, and it’s remarkably effective in creating one of the more interesting characters in the film, and could easily have been the star of his own. James Earl Jones is also good in his few scenes as Greer, providing perhaps the most powerful moment when he confronts his mortality.
A much better entry in the series, Clear and Present Danger is a fluid, fast-paced thriller with excellent action and sharp dialogue that puts the emphasis on story and characters. A return to form.
That Moment In: Clear and Present Danger
Scene Setup: A double-cross leads to the black-ops team being rooted out and attacked, killing all but three, with two being captured and one managing to escape into the jungle. Learning of the deceit, Ryan heads to Columbia again and tracks down John Clarke, hoping to rescue the remaining men. Knowing that Escobedo is holding the soldiers, Ryan has an idea to get them out: knock on Escobedo’s door and ask for the men back. It’s risky and unorthodox, but he has a little something that might be just the thing in brokering the deal.
The Scene (Timestamp 01:54:25): Ryan is granted entrance to Escobedo’s vast hacienda where, surrounded by bodyguards, the drug kingpin sits in a lavish room on an expensive sofa. He invites Ryan to sit and inquires as to the purpose of his visit. In doublespeak, he says he’s missing two coffee-buying friends who went missing the day before, and is hoping he might know where they are. Fully aware of what he is talking about, Escobedo plays along with the charade and feigns ignorance until Ryan brings up the six hundred and fifty million dollars of Escobedo’s money that was seized after the killing of the U.S. President’s friend on the yacht. This gets his attention. Ryan offers a trade. He states that Felix Cortez, his intelligence officer has betrayed him and plans to kill him and his family before taking over the cartel. Ryan has a secretly-made tape recording of the confession. It proves to be very valuable. Escobedo brings Ryan to the Lindo Coffee warehouse, the legal front to his vast drug empire. He calls for Cortez to join them and when he does, he plays the tape. It’s not a good sign for Cortez when Escobedo picks up his aluminum baseball bat.
This entire sequence brings the three prongs of the story together and allows the principle players in each to finally meet. There’s a great moment when we see Ryan, having successfully bartered the deal, sitting in a chair taking drags off a lit cigar, exactly as Cortez had been seen doing earlier. This draws upon the comparison a woman named Moira (Ann Magnuson), whom Cortex was sexually manipulating for information, made about how Cortez was the Latin Jack Ryan. The scene further provides the shift in power as Ryan has been playing catch up to this point, always a bit out of the loop and played as a pawn. It is here where he firmly takes control and becomes the puppet master himself. Watch how his entire presence changes from the hunched and slightly distressed figure in the early scenes in the President’s Oval Office to the dominate posture on Escobedo’s sofa. He’s seen every card played, watched as his superiors and colleagues have manipulated the system and cost lives, and been left marked as the root of the problem. Now, as he plays two criminals against each other, he takes the upper hand it’s like a circle is complete. Ryan becomes the hero.