Back to IndieWire

Ranked: Tom Clancy Movies, From Worst To Best

Ranked: Tom Clancy Movies, From Worst To Best

Tom Clancy, who had written over a dozen best-selling spy novels (and co-written more than a dozen additional novels) and overseen a vast, hugely profitable videogame empire, died today at the age of 66. For an author who was prolific and whose works were so inherently cinematic, usually involving large-scale tactical military strikes, a shockingly small amount of his material was actually developed for the screen. This December (unless it gets pushed) sees the release of Paramount‘s “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” in which Chris Pine takes over the role of the titular CIA analyst, a character previously inhabited by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck.

We thought we would mark Clancy’s passing with a brief rundown of the works that had actually been adapted, going from worst to best. Usually, Clancy’s books were full of technical specifications and bits of military history, the literary equivalent of blueprints. The challenge for any of the adaptations, and where the very best of them succeeded, was by condensing this wealth of information (and accompanying tangle of subplots, motivations, and reversals) into a coherent cinematic vision. The best adaptations did just that. The worst…not so much.

Clancy will be missed as a storyteller able to conjure forth these complex military scenarios, some of which became eerily true to real life (the 9/11 attacks bore a striking similarity to sequences from his 1994 novel “Debt Of Honor“). His creations on the page, on the silver screen and on video game consoles, will live for decades to come. He will be missed — but he won’t be forgotten.

5. “Netforce” (Robert Lieberman, 1999)
Clancy was an uncannily synergistic strategist, with many of his novels existing merely as fodder for other, multimedia materials (like his lucrative, long-running videogame series). This was the case with “Netforce,” which began as an elaborate deal between himself and Penguin‘s paperback imprint Berkley Books. They paid Clancy $22 million for 24 paperback tie-ins to “Netforce,” which originated as a 200-minute ABC miniseries that starred Scott Bakula, Kris Kristofferson and, for some reason, Judge Reinhold. It was an attempt by Clancy (and co-writer Steve Pieczenik) to make the emerging threat of digital terrorism dynamic and relevant, even though in 1999 most people had Prodigy accounts and thought a virus was something that existed inside your body when you had a cough. Taking place in the distant year of 2005 (yes, seriously), Bakula plays the head of a new FBI task force called “Netforce” that investigates crimes perpetrated online. Reinhold plays a Bill Gates-type character whose evil scheme has him attempting to take control of the Internet, presumably for non-porn-related reasons. Despite an appealing cast, the plotting is beyond clunky (especially for a “miniseries”) and the direction, by Lieberman, a longtime television vet, is slack and uninteresting. Even Clancy couldn’t make an Internet-based story exciting.

4. “The Sum of All Fears” (Phil Alden Robinson, 2002)
In the Jack Ryan chronology, “Sum of All Fears” comes pretty late in the game (in the next book, Ryan is sworn in as Vice President just as a kamikaze pilot kills the president, instantly elevating him to Commander-in-Chief), but Paramount used the book as an attempt to “reboot” the character of Jack Ryan, who had previously been played by Alec Baldwin and a considerably more craggy Harrison Ford. Ben Affleck assumes the reigns of the character, attempting to give him more of the nebbish nervousness that Baldwin provided but was all but gone from the Ford variation, and Liev Schreiber assumes the role of John Clark, Ryan’s shadowy variant, who is just as important a character in the Clancy novels (he was previously played by Willem Dafoe in “Clear and Present Danger“). The film, directed by “Sneakers” and “Field of Dreams” helmer Phil Alden Robinson, is sturdy but unspectacular, with a number of the pivotal plot points either changed drastically or removed altogether (on the DVD commentary track, Clancy introduces himself as the author of the “book the director ignored”), either due to national sensitivity or the changing political landscape (Arab terrorists became Neo-Nazis). Still, the movie is handsomely directed and has a number of show-stopping set pieces, most notably one in which a dirty bomb goes off during a crowded football game and everyone dies. That’s pretty ballsy, especially when you consider the film’s release date less than a year after September 11th.

3. “Clear And Present Danger” (Philip Noyce, 1994)
Just two years after the initial Harrison Ford-as-Jack Ryan opus, “Patriot Games,” the star reteamed with director Philip Noyce for “Clear and Present Danger,” which saw Ryan assuming a larger responsibility within the agency (he becomes the Acting Deputy Director) while still bogged down with political ineffectiveness and double-dealings. This time the film is concerned with South American drug dealers and a covert operation, enacted by the President (Donald Moffat) and carried out by the lethal John Clark (Dafoe). Much of the movie takes a parallel narrative where Ryan is trying to figure out what’s going on in his own agency. When Ryan finally does jump into action, shit gets real. “Clear and Present Danger” isn’t as memorable or dynamic as “Patriot Games,” and suffers from the mid-’90s action movie cliché that they all have to be about villainous drug dealers, usually played by the same handful of vaguely ethnic actors. Still, “Clear and Present Danger” features what might be the single most iconic sequence from the entire franchise, the one in which a CIA caravan of white Suburbans gets ambushed in some South American town. It’s one of the most thrilling staged and wonderfully executed action sequences of the ’90s (written by the great John Milius, who famously provided additional dialogue and script work for the “Hunt for Red October” screenplay). Plus, the part where James Earl Jones, the series’ constant when they made the leap from Alec Baldwin to Harrison Ford, dies, is totally sad.

2. “Patriot Games” (Philip Noyce, 1992)
The success of “The Hunt for Red October” meant that there would, of course, be a sequel, once again starring Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan, with John McTiernan gamely returning to direct. The creative team had decided upon “Clear and Present Danger” as the next movie, and John Milius, who Sean Connery had brought in to pump up his dialogue on “Hunt for Red October,” delivered a script. Then the studio changed their minds. They wanted “Patriot Games,” chronologically set before the events “The Hunt for Red October,” for the sequel. McTiernan later explained: “Patriot Games’ was a movie where the villains are the Irish Republican Army. Alec Baldwin, the original Jack Ryan, and I, while neither of us were sympathizers with the Irish Republican Army, were nonetheless of Irish descent and preferred not to make a movie that makes villains of our heritage. We pleaded with the studio to make the other Jack Ryan book, ‘Clear and Present Danger,’ which was a much better script. Alec and I both wanted to do it and told them straight off we would. But the producer owned the book ‘Patriot Games,’ and it was going to greatly increase his participation in the ultimate series if they made ‘Patriot Games’ as the second movie.” What’s even more ironic about the decision to have Harrison Ford take over the iconic role is the fact that Ford was McTiernan’s first choice for Jack Ryan in “Hunt for Red October.” According to McTiernan “there was a great deal of scheming that went on to push Alec out of that part.” As reconceived by Ford, Jack Ryan isn’t the nerdy analyst but is instead a more cocksure agent, saving a British royal family member from IRA terrorists, who then systematically stalk Ryan and his family. While “Patriot Games” lacks the visual inventiveness of “Hunt for Red October,” it’s still an incredibly tense thrill ride, with Sean Bean turning in a wonderfully menacing performance as the lead terrorist. The entire siege on the Ryan’s home at the end is totally gripping, as is a little sequence where Ryan is followed on an army base. There are fine supporting performances, too, by Anne Archer, Patrick Bergin, Thora Birch (as Ryan’s daughter), and Samuel L. Jackson. Also, for a high-octane suspense film, it ends on a terrifically small-scale cliffhanger: the sex of the next Ryan child, which is left dangling at the end of the movie.

1. “The Hunt for Red October” (John McTiernan, 1990)
There was a lot of speculation prior to the film’s release as to whether or not the film version of “The Hunt for Red October” could even become a box office success, since it was so clearly written during the Cold War and the movie was opening during peacetime. No one should have fretted. The novel, which made Clancy an international sensation, was beautifully adapted, and at the time was the largest “non-Thanksgiving/non-summer weekend” of all time. Part of the film’s success was the cast, Alec Baldwin assuming the role of Jack Ryan and Sean Connery taking on the role of Captain Ramius, the captain of a Soviet sub who decides to defect (early promotional materials still listed Klaus Maria Brandauer in the part), with a supporting cast that included Scott Glenn, Jeffrey Jones, Stellan SkarsgardSam Neill,Courtney B. Vance and James Earl Jones. Another reason the movie was such a success was McTiernan’s timeless take on the material, which he saw as being just as influenced by “Treasure Island” as it was by Clancy’s original novel (which the director had tried to secure for himself, right before it went to Paramount). “It’s about a boy, even though he’s 35 years old, he’s a boy in the environment he functions in. In the bureaucratic political world he’s in, he’s the kid at the end of the table,” McTiernan later explained. “He’s a boy. And he comes to possess a piece of information, a map or an insight, that leads to him going to sea. And he’s swept off with a bunch of bizarre characters and something in his innate nature allows him or helps him to solve whatever the crisis is. And he comes back from sea forever changed.” McTiernan directed the shit out of the movie, too.”Hunt for Red October” is a classic, cleanly told piece of action filmmaking, with McTiernan subtly bringing all of the mechanisms and cogs of Clancy’s prose, in which endless pages can be spent describing a weapons system or trajectory of a single missile, into fitfully rendered visual terms. Everything that made both Clancy such a compelling storyteller is present and accounted for in McTiernan’s streamlined adaptation, without any of the author’s occasionally gummy narrative shoe leather. The result is one of the very best action movies of the ’90s. Without the brilliance of “The Hunt for Red October,” the character wouldn’t still be kicking today. 

While Clancy may be gone his work lives on in Hollywood with “Ghost Recon,” “Splinter Cell” and “Without Remorse” all in active development. And like we mentioned, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (new poster below) is on the way. Any Clancy novel you want to see adapted? Let us know below. 

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , , , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox