by D.W. Lundberg

Sunday, October 3, 2010


What makes a quality sequel? At the very least, it should expand upon the themes and characters we encountered in the original film. It should also provide us a refresher course on those elements that made the first chapter work so well in the first place, without merely being content to rehash them.

It's a sad fact, however, that so few sequels in cinema history have been able to do this. Sure, there's always a chance that a follow-up film might equal or (on occasion) even surpass the original, but examples of this are few and far between. Studios are just as likely to rush a sequel into production to make a quick buck, rather than, say, put in the time and effort it takes to create something special. That's why, for every Godfather Part II there's a Men In Black II. For every Empire Strikes Back there's Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D, and Jaws The Revenge.

A few weeks ago we attended family dinner at the in-laws' and somebody had decided to pop The Hunt For Red October into the DVD player. Nice choice, that one. It's the kind of movie I'll always stop and watch whenever it's playing on TV - a brainy, brawny techno-thriller starring Sean Connery as a Russian submarine captain trying to defect to America, and Alec Baldwin as the CIA analyst trying to outguess his every move, before the entire Soviet Navy can hunt him down and stop him.

I remember when Red October hit theaters in March of 1990. It was the first must-see blockbuster of that year (of the decade, really), and it seemed like everyone in my junior high school carted around the Tom Clancy novel on which it was based - students, teachers, I think even the janitor owned a copy. I remember sitting in that crowded theater, watching the movie for the first time at thirteen years old, and aside from that intense feeling of seasickness during the underwater scenes (that's what you get for sitting in the front row), even then I was enthralled by the techno-babble, the submarine battles, and the movie's sleek, diamond-sharp look (photographed by Jan de Bont, who later went on to direct Speed).

I also remember how critics and various entertainment shows pegged Alec Baldwin as the Next Great Movie Star. His earnest, portrayal of CIA analyst Jack Ryan (his first major role in a mega-budget Hollywood production) stood toe-to-toe with the ever authoritative Connery, and Baldwin seemed destined for a long and illustrious acting career, especially if it meant he'd continue in the role that made him a breakout star.

But then a curious thing happened. When it came time to shoot Patriot Games, the second Clancy/Ryan novel adapted for the big screen, Baldwin opted out. There were rumors that the actor had been difficult to work with, that Paramount needed a more bankable star, or that Baldwin chose to pursue a career on Broadway rather than one in Hollywood. Whatever the reason, Baldwin was out, and Harrison Ford was in. (Irony alert: as I mentioned before, Ford was originally sought for the role of Jack Ryan in Red October, but he wanted to play Connery's part instead.)

Patriot Games hit theaters in June of 1992. Ford seemed better suited for the part. His performance felt lived-in, more familiar. So is the movie: it's less techno-thriller than family-in-peril action picture, something we've seen countless times before, and though it's hardly a blight on Red October's good name, it lacks the smarts and sharp edges of the earlier movie.

Clear And Present Danger followed in 1994, again starring Ford. It's smarter, more complex, a little heavy-handed at times - a thinking man's action thriller with a thinking man's action star. At the very least, it finally felt as if Ford had settles into his newest franchise since Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

Not so. Skip ahead eight years, to 2002. Although Clancy's The Cardinal And The Kremlin had been optioned at one point by Paramount, the next Jack Ryan adventure to hit movie screens was The Sum Of All Fears, starring Ben Affleck in one of the decade's first attempts to "reboot" a franchise. Affleck does all right as a younger Ryan, just starting his career at the CIA. The movie is all right, too, light on its feet, better than it has any right to be, with a plot similar to Red October's. Plus, it co-stars Morgan Freeman. And you can (almost) never go wrong with Morgan Freeman.

All this is just a roundabout way of introducing you to (yet another) ongoing series I intend to revisit on the blog. Each time out, we'll take a particular franchise and look at it from a complete perspective: what made the original work, what didn't, how each impending sequel did or did not improve on those flaws, and the legacy they leave behind - for better or worse. Just another way to keep the creative juices flowing. This is all just a matter of opinion, of course. As always, the point of this blog is not to force my opinions on anybody, but to spark a conversation, to make us all aware of the ins and outs of film production, so that you never take your movie-watching for granted.

Here's the format (or something like it): 


The Original: The Hunt For Red October (John McTiernan, 1990)

Cast: Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Sam Neill, James Earl Jones, Joss Ackland, Richard Jordan, Tim Curry, 
Colin Firth, Courtney Vance, Stellan Skarsgård, Jeffrey Jones, Timothy Carhart, Fred Dalton Thompson, Sven-Ole Thorsen

Plot: In the midst of the Cold War, a celebrated Russian submarine commander attempts to defect to the United States, with both the Soviet and U.S. Navies hot on his trail.

How It Set The Tone: The first of Tom Clancy's best-selling techno-thriller novels adapted for the big screen, introducing CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Baldwin) as a man of thought forced to become a man of action. Tautly directed by McTiernan (Die Hard), with a solid supporting cast and a plot that's just confusing enough to get your mind working. The special effects (i.e., anything set underwater) look a bit chintzy by today's CGI-heavy standards, but it's the character interactions that pack the movie's biggest punch.

Room For Improvement: Not much. It won't alter your life in any significant way, but if you like your action movies done with style and brains, it's a great way to spend a couple of hours.

Grade: B+

Sequel: Patriot Games (Philip Noyce, 1992)

Returning Cast: James Earl Jones

New Cast: Harrison Ford, Anne Archer, Patrick Bergin, Sean Bean, Thora Birch, Richard Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, James Fox, Polly Walker, J.E. Freeman

: A CIA analyst on vacation with his family in London inadvertently prevents a terrorist attack, and is targeted by a renegade faction of the IRA bent on revenge.

How It Compares: It's OK. Ford slips into the role of Jack Ryan with relative ease, but the plot goes light on the techno-thrills and military espionage that Clancy enthusiasts have come to expect. (The novel was actually written as a prequel to The Hunt For Red October but the action of the film takes place sometime afterward.) You really feel its family-in-jeopardy scenario in your guts, but the action is nothing you haven't seen before: fist fights, boat chases, and heroes and villains firing semi-automatic weapons at each other in the dark.

Grade: C+

Sequel: Clear And Present Danger (Philip Noyce, 1994)

Returning Cast: Harrison Ford, Anne Archer, James Earl Jones, Thora Birch

New Cast: Willem Dafoe, Joaquim de Almeida, Henry Czerny, Harris Yulin, Donald Moffat, Miguel Sandoval, Benjamin Bratt, Raymond Cruz, Ann Magnuson, Tim Grimm, Belita Moreno

Plot: CIA analyst Jack Ryan is appointed Deputy Director of Intelligence in his mentor's absence, and finds himself caught in the middle of an ongoing illegal drug war between the US government and Colombian cartels.

How It Compares: A welcome return to the head-scratching techno-jargon and political intrigue that made Jack Ryan such a household name. Ford settles into what might well have been his most iconic role since Indiana Jones. And director Philip Noyce impresses with some crackerjack action sequences, including a high-stakes ambush on an American Caravan in Bogota, and a cat-and-mouse game of one-upmanship between dueling computers. The complex plot mechanics, on the other hand, deserve a much better climax than two men duking it out in the basement of some random drug czar's mansion.

Grade: B

Sequel: The Sum Of All Fears (Phil Alden Robinson, 2002)

Returning Cast: 
Sven-Ole Thorsen (different role)

New Cast: Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman, Liev Schreiber, Bridget Moynahan, James Cromwell, Ciarán Hinds, Colm Feore, Alan Bates, Ron Rifkin, Bruce McGill, Phillip Baker Hall, Michael Byrne, Josef Summer

Plot: Rookie CIA agent Jack Ryan is tasked to prevent a fascist terrorist group from sparking a nuclear war between Russian and the United States

How It Compares: One thing's for sure, Jack Ryan sure likes them Russians. As he did in The Hunt For Red October, everyone's favorite CIA analyst challenges his superiors by defending a Russian official who may or may not share the political views of his predecessors. A "reboot" of the franchise (Freeman's part is a rejiggering of the James Earl Jones/mentor role from previous entries), with Affleck OK as a stand-in for Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, at the beginning of his burgeoning CIA career. As popcorn thrillers go, it isn't bad, with at least one game-changing twist (hint: it goes BOOM!!!) and a post-climactic wrap-up that copies the baptism sequence from The Godfather.

Grade: B-

Sequel: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Kenneth Branagh, 2014)

Returning Cast: Colm Feore (different role)

New Cast: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightley, Alec Utgoff, David Paymer, Mikhail Baryshnikov (uncredited)

The Plot: A US Marine is recruited as a covert CIA analyst and sent on a mission to Moscow to investigate an imminent terrorist attack.

How It Compares: And so Tom Clancy's titular hero gets rebooted a second time, as if the 12-year gap between prequels was enough to convince anybody that we actually needed another one. Chris Pine is perfectly acceptable in the part, although here he's more a man of action than a man of thought, which is not how Ryan was presented in the books; any attempt to associate the character with the attacks on 9/11 is appreciated but utterly beside the point. (The bulk of the plot takes place in modern-day Moscow anyway, so why not set it during the 80s and make thematic reference to the War on Terror instead?) Kenneth Branagh's direction is serviceable at best, as his Boris Badenov-ish Russian accent (I had a hard time, too, accepting the otherwise effervescent Keira Knightley as an American). It's Kevin Costner, though, who comes off best, his current streak of shadowy mentor figures (see also Man Of Steel) suiting him like a warm blanket.

Grade: C

More To Come?: At the moment, no. Shadow Recruit's less-than-stellar $135.6 million gross at the worldwide box office practically rung the death knell for further Jack Ryan adventures. Which is a shame, since the character had yet to achieve his full potential on the big screen.


Simple enough, yes? Like I said, this is a long- winded intro to what will hopefully be a fun series for all. We'll re-visit fan-favorite franchises from Star Trek to Star Wars, Back To The Future to The Matrix, and others too – almost too many to count (Hollywood, it seems, can always be counted on for recycling old ideas). Feel free to share any of your own thoughts below, as well as any titles you'd like to see us cover in the future. Until then...

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