Directed by Philip Noyce
It’s easy to get Patriot Games mixed up with any other number of Harrison Ford action movies, whether it’s Witness, The Fugitive, Air Force One, Frantic, Presumed Innocent, Clear and Present Danger, etc. In these movies he plays a gruff, over the hill agent of some kind who finds himself involved in a dangerous plot out of his control. He is just about always the everyman hero whose bravery pulls him into the action and who then must fight back against the clear evil that would do him and his family harm.
There is little nuance to these pulpy, entertaining stories, and pretty much none in Patriot Games. Ford plays Jack Ryan (an all American name and hero played by the likes of Alec Baldwin, Ben Affleck, Chris Pine and most recently John Krasinski), a booksmart former CIA analyst who saves the day during a would-be terrorist attack in London conducted by members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Ryan’s initial heroism brings upon him the wrath of Sean Miller (Sean Bean), a volatile, simplistic bad guy whose brother Ryan killed when he intervened in the plot to blow up the car containing the Minister of Northern Ireland. After the failed attack Ryan is hailed as an unlikely hero, and Miller is incarcerated, left to leer at police officers and Ryan’s image in the newspaper like the movie villain he is.
Because Miller is such a movie villain we know he will break out of prison. It’s the same thing you see in many cat and mouse thrillers and in movies like The Dark Knight and Skyfall. The bad guy does something wild and gets arrested, but he remains smug because he knows there are people out there who will break him out. The escape happens during prisoner transport and proves to be one of the more explosive set pieces in the movie, paving the way to the eventual story climax.
What’s so silly (and understandably frustrating to many) about Patriot Games is the way it uses the IRA cause to help construct such a cartoonish villain. It really doesn’t matter what Sean Miller stands for because within the text all that matters is that he wants to kill Ryan and his family (wife and daughter). His need for revenge outweighs any sense of duty or obligation, but his connection to the IRA makes this film incredibly political.
Patriot Games works, I think, because it’s a fun action thriller, but the specifics of these characters don’t matter. That being said, there was a conscious decision to make the villains members of the IRA, even if they’re meant to be a rogue faction within the organization, and that connects the story and its message to the real world.
When the movie ends we’re left with a sense that the IRA is bad, always either violent or indifferent, and the American hero Jack Ryan is the best. I don’t know enough about the IRA to have any significant opinions on what they’ve done or fought for, but I do know that the conflict they were for so long embroiled in is much more complex than what we see here. All we’re told is that the IRA is a terrorist organization, and they need to be stopped.
Movies like Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) and the Daniel Day-Lewis movie The Boxer (1997) take much more unflinching but nuanced looks at the conflict with and within the IRA. They show the idealism of the group along with the indignation, tragedy and tendency towards violence.
Patriot Games kind of gives it away with the title, making it pretty clear that this is a movie about an all American hero, and everything else is just there for quick exposition. Even then the story has more to do with one man’s desperation to protect his family, leading to a third act climax similar to that in Cape Fear.
Up Next: Leave No Trace (2018), Damsel (2018), The Finest Hours (2016)