Considering that the late Tom Clancy wrote 16 novels in the Jack Ryan/John Clark series, it’s surprising that producer Mace Neufeld and Paramount Pictures have only adapted four of them for the silver screen. (A fifth Clancy-inspired film, the upcoming "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," is an original screen story not tied to any existing novel.)
Of course, readers who are familiar with Clancy’s fiction know that his complex plots and highly detailed novels are not easy to adapt into two-hour movies. Most of Clancy’s stories take place in various parts of the world and involve almost entire armies’ worth of main and supporting characters.
This complexity-of-plot and large cast of characters is fine for novels, which don’t limit an author’s imagination to the strict budget limitations that movie producers and screenwriters have to deal with.
Take, for instance, 1990’s "The Hunt for Red October," the first of the Jack Ryan films from producer Neufeld and director John McTiernan.
Starring Sean Connery as Soviet Captain First Rank Marko Ramius, Alec Baldwin as CIA analyst John Patrick (Jack) Ryan, and James Earl Jones as CIA Deputy Director (Intelligence) Admiral James Greer, McTiernan's film catches the spirit, rather than the letter, of Clancy's debut novel.
It is 1984, a few months before Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union. In one of the fjords near Polyarny Naval Base, the Red October, a modified Typhoon-class missile sub, sets out on a routine training exercise.
Perched on the small bridge atop the sub's sail are two top-notch Soviet naval officers who are about to commit an act of treason against the State. They are Capt. Marko Ramius and his first officer, Yuri Borodin (Sam Neill), and in league with several other officers, they plan to sail Red October west....and defect to the United States.
Meanwhile, Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst currently based in London, is shuttled over to CIA headquarters to brief DDI Greer about unidentified modifications to a Typhoon-class "boomer" -- two sets of "doors" fore and aft that show up in grainy pictures obtained by British Intelligence. The British don't know what those doors are, and neither does he,
Ryan suggests to Greer that the best guy to examine the photos and give the Agency an estimate of the doors' function is Skip Tyler (Jeffrey Jones), a former sub skipper and now a consultant to the Navy with a security clearance of Top Secret or higher. Greer agrees, knowing the information is badly needed.
Sure enough, Tyler pores over the photos, and after eliminating several other possibilities, concludes the doors are part of a hydrodynamic or "caterpillar" drive, a "jet engine for the water." With only a few moving parts, it's a nearly silent propulsion system which makes Red October virtually undetectable by most NATO/U.S. sonar systems. In essence, its stealthy features make the new sub a first strike weapon. Ryan is stunned by the revelation, but thinks the assignment is just a research project.
That is, until Adm. Greer summons him to the White House to help brief Dr. Jeff Pelt (the late Richard Jordan), the President's National Security Adviser. The entire Soviet combatant arm of the fleet is heading out to sea, with orders to find the Red October...and sink her. Now the Americans have to figure out why. Is her captain planning an attack on the United States? Is this merely an exercise? Or is this the prelude to World War III? Suddenly it becomes Ryan's mission to figure out what Ramius is up to.
The script by Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart condenses much of the novel's action considerably, but it also encapsulates many of Clancy's key themes and supporting characters.
Here, Jack Ryan is part of a team that also includes Commander Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn) and the crew of USS Dallas, the Los Angeles-class sub that tracks Red October throughout the film. A key member of the crew is Seaman Ronald Jones (Courtney A. Vance), the ace sonar operator who first picks up the boomer on her way out of Polyarny. Seaman Jones loses her temporarily, then picks up her faint trace with his attuned hearing and expertise with the Dallas’ expensive sonar gear.
The movie features exciting action and nail-biting tension throughout, even though the underwater scenes look a bit murky on TV screens. The pacing is as good as can be expected from the director of two "Die Hard" films, and Basil Pouledoris' Russian-flavored score is fittingly exciting.
But pacing, effects, and musical scores are worthless if the actors don't perform well. Happily, "The Hunt for Red October" is enhanced by great performances by Baldwin and Connery, whose chemistry in their scenes together evokes the Ryan-Ramius relationship in Clancy's book, making this the best of the four films set in the Ryan-verse.
"The Hunt for Red October" is available on Blu-ray and DVD.