The U.S. Coastguard boards a suspicious-looking boat and makes a grisly discovery, a pair of bodies, and what makes the situation worse politically is the deceased were personal friends of the President of the United States (Donald Moffat). He is shocked at this, and calls a meeting of his top security team to see what can be done but for Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford), as second-in-command to the head of the C.I.A. Admiral Greer (James Earl Jones), there is something unpalatable about the tone of the conversation, as it seems to him the President is less looking for justice and more for revenge. While they are in The Oval Office, Greer takes a coughing fit and looks a little unwell, but it turns out he is very unwell, and Ryan will have to stand in for him as the plot thickens...
Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan novels were huge sellers with dads across the free world, one of his doorstep-sized books were a reliable gift for birthdays and Christmas because everyone's father seemed to appreciate his way with exhaustively researched espionage and crisis politics. The first adaptation had been the blockbuster The Hunt for Red October, but Alec Baldwin had been dropped for the second, Patriot Games, in favour of the older but perceived as a bigger draw Ford, and with other actors going on to take the role this was as close to an American James Bond as Hollywood got. Quite often this material was fairly gung ho, America first business, but Clear and Present Danger might have been the best of them.
This was down to the acknowledgement that American foreign policy left something to be desired, and with its tale of a drugs cartel from Colombia being picked on by covert operations on the secret orders of the President himself, it could have made more of the C.I.A.'s illegal involvement in the cocaine trade in the years previous to this film's release. They didn't touch on that, yet there was enough here to indicate the motivations for the nation's intervention in global affairs was not a wholly noble, never mind helpful, one, which was pretty brave for a populist American movie coming out of over a decade's worth of precisely that aforementioned gung ho policy making since the eighties. Here they were pointing out recent history may not have been entirely beneficial.
To the U.S.A. or to the world in general, and if the plotline about the drugs trade seemed more relevant to action flicks of a lot less brain than this one, the screenwriters, including John Milius, made a success of it. Interesting to note that for a film sold on those action sequences, they did not show up properly until around an hour in, as director Phillip Noyce preferred to build his narrative up and the complex relationships that this involved, though when Ryan found himself amidst violence there was a lot more at stake since we had gotten to know him and the connections he had with everyone else, goodies and baddies. This was not a tactic often employed in such a wham-bam genre, but it paid dividends if not starting a trend, as almost none of the action thrillers to come would be able to hold their nerve to that extent.
Another element that rendered this more absorbing than its peers was an excellent cast, some better known than others but all contributing to a satisfying and layered set of interactions. Ford was perhaps a lazy choice rather than an obvious one for this sort of thing, but there's a reason he was cast as he flourished as the hero especially when all around are losing their composure, and everyone else was patently aspiring to live up to his standard. Willem Dafoe was the shady black ops man who we think will be pitted against Ryan when the denouement arises, but it did not play out that way, and they contrasted very well in style when they did meet in the final half hour. As our Cuban baddie, Joaquim de Almeida was an intriguingly shaded villain, apparently a right hand man to the actual drugs lord (Miguel Sandoval) but with designs in power that are proving irresistible to the forces of subterfuge in The White House (Harris Yulin, Henry Czerny, Moffat). This was also a rare movie to make a scene featuring computers genuinely suspenseful and not pandering to ver kids, though it could have been that audiences showed up because they liked the bit in the trailer where Ford tells the President "How dare you, sir!" which occurs at the end, but was too good not to include in the advertising. Music by James Horner.