June 10, 2002 12:00 PM

Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman, Liev Schreiber, James Cromwell, Bridget Moynahan, Alan Bates

Timing is everything, and the timing on the release of The Sum of All Fears, a spy thriller in which terrorists aim a nuclear bomb at Baltimore, couldn’t be worse. The news is filled daily with reports of attack alerts, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is warning us that al Qaeda and its cohorts will likely soon corral weapons of mass destruction. So a Hollywood confection in which nuke-wielding terrorists are a mere plot point so that a pumped-up action hero—it’s Ben Affleck here—can save the world seems mighty offensive and beside the point.

Soapbox aside, Fears—as directed by Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams)—is a routine, by-the-book (in this case, a Tom Clancy book) thriller. In a more innocent time it would have proved passably entertaining on a Saturday night.

The movie marks the return of intrepid CIA analyst Jack Ryan (now played by Affleck), the hero of 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, 1992’s Patriot Games and 1994’s Clear and Present Danger. Ryan, previously portrayed by Alec Baldwin in Hunt and then by Harrison Ford, is miraculously younger than ever despite Fears‘ being set in the present. This time out, he’s a recently hired specialist in Russian relations at the CIA, where he’s taken under the wing of CIA head William Cabot (Freeman). Soon, even while insisting, “I just write reports,” Ryan is making like a spy, tracking down terrorists and getting on the hot line with the American and Russian presidents to prevent a war.

Affleck, ever the big lug, trudges through Fears as if he were making his way through an acting-class obstacle course: Look concerned. Escape from burning helicopter. Beseech world leaders. Freeman, as he always does, classes up the joint and brings a welcome dose of wit. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Adds up to little

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