Of Carnage And Comedy

Jack Ryan, the White Knight of Tom Clancy's novels, is conceived in a superheroic mold, and Alec Baldwin played him that way in the submarine epic "The Hunt for Red October." Harrison Ford, no stranger to superheroes, takes over the role in Patriot Games, and he brings Clancy's boys' adventure tale down to earth (or is it up to earth, after that last one?). Weathered, considerably older than the novel's 31-year-old hero, Ford gives Ryan a pensive, internalized air. When this Ryan springs into action, saving the life of a British royal from a terrorist attack just outside Buckingham Palace, he's graceful, but you feel the human effort that gives his heroism some poignancy. Philip Noyce, the gifted Australian director of this installment, seems to have adjusted the rhythms of "Patriot Games" to Ford's slowed-down beat. Though it has its fair share of gun-blazing mayhem, it's a quieter thriller than is the current fashion in would-be summer blockbusters. Will audiences conditioned to the jaunty carnage of " Lethal Weapon 3" find this a tad old fashioned?

Having saved the life of Lord Holmes (James Fox), and killed a young Irish terrorist in the shootout, Ryan gets knighted--and becomes the target of the dead man's fanatical, vengeful brother (Sean Bean). Ryan's quiet days as a Naval Academy teacher in Annapolis are over. With his wife (Anne Archer) and his daughter (Thora Birch) in jeopardy, he's forced back into CIA action to find this renegade offshoot of the IRA before he and his mates get to him.

Clancy's plot (adapted by W. Peter Iliff and Donald Stewart) is simple meat-and-potatoes stuff; "Patriot Games" doesn't offer much in the way of narrative surprise or novel characterizations: if the villains have any real political thoughts in their heads, we don't hear much about it. But Noyce pulls off a couple of stylish set pieces. The first is a tense Annapolis action sequence in which Ryan tries to head off an assassin pursuing his wife and daughter on the freeway. The second, and most original, is a raid on a terrorist training camp in Libya which we see only on CIA computer screens half a world away. Ryan watches the abstracted carnage just as the TV audience watched the gulf war, as if it were as bloodless and unreal as a Nintendo game, and the warrior in him is made queasy by the spurious cleanliness of his detached position. Much of "Patriot Games" is routine: good guys and bad guys running around with heavy artillery. But at its best moments, Noyce and Ford snap the genre back to life.

may be clumsily made, shamelessly contrived and utterly cynical in its calculated uplift, but there's no getting around it: the damn thing is funny. Here's the gimmick, if you haven't already heard: Whoopi Goldberg is a Reno lounge singer who has to enter the police witness-protection program after seeing a murder by her mobster boyfriend (Harvey Keitel). The worldly sinner lands in a San Francisco convent, where she dons a habit and takes charge of the decrepit church choir, whipping the nuns into a swinging girl group that packs the pews.

You may hate yourself for laughing, but there is something irresistible about the sight of these gals in wimples knocking out ecclesiastically retooled '60s hits like "I Will Follow Him" and "My Guy" (now "My God"). The script, by the pseudonymous "Joseph Howard" (actually Paul Rudnick and a fleet of script doctors) has two or three inspired one-liners (enough to distract you from the clanky machinery of the plot), but it's Whoopi and the girls who keep this confection tasty. As a roly-poly nun given to giddy fits of girlish enthusiasm, Kathy Najimy is a comic miracle worker, while the hatchet-faced Mary Wickes milks the crabby Sister Mary Lazarus to the last sweet-and-sour drop. Maggie Smith could play the imperious Mother Superior in her sleep and get chuckles, and she does. Emile ("Dirty Dancing") Ardolino directs with neither grace nor subtlety, but with a sure nose for the crowd-pleasing gag. What can you say about a movie, in 1992, that shows a gaggle of singing nuns solving the problems of the inner city with a smile, a paintbrush and a song? This is one Hollywood product even Dan Quayle must love. That's a recommendation, sort of.