Bye-Bye Baltimore

Already crazed with fear and paranoia after the life-altering damage of 9/11, Americans now have a new reason to panic. The Sum of All Fears , a blistering thriller about terrorism in which a nuclear device blows up the city of Baltimore, will most likely scare the living daylights out of everybody who sees it. A timely prediction of the inevitable, or another greedy, opportunistic Hollywood ploy to capitalize on global anxiety at the box office? You be the judge. Either way, it’s one whale of an exciting action blockbuster, for which I predict a summer box-office bonanza.

Tom Clancy novels about C.I.A. intelligence are like John Grisham novels about the law: page-turners for mass consumption on beaches, planes and patio chairs, with plots that defy both description and logic. I never understand them and can’t remember them the morning after I finish the final chapter. But the Clancy books about the global heroics of C.I.A. operative Jack Ryan have a built-in marketing factor and usually translate into guaranteed crowd-pleasers for movie audiences weaned on noise and blowing up stuff. The Sum of All Fears is no exception, and it has the added benefit of an unlimited demographic appeal. From the local cineplex to the V.I.P. screening room at the White House, everybody’s worried about terrorism.

There’s a new reason to tremble in this film: The terrorists have nothing to do with the Middle East. Ever resourceful at finding new ways to wrinkle our brows, Tom Clancy isn’t suggesting we forget about Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, but he is suggesting the buck doesn’t stop there. With a plot so intricate and confusing it takes time to distinguish one villain from another, I’m not sure I can even assemble the bare bones, but here goes.

In 1973, Egypt and Syria launch an attack on Israel. An Israeli A-4 jet takes off with one nuclear bomb on board. If we are to believe this fanciful prologue, the plane crashes, but not the bomb. Twenty-nine years later, a black-market arms dealer in Damascus buys the still-active plutonium inside the bomb for a few hundred dollars and sells it for millions to a gang of neo-Nazis in Vienna headed by a most effectively villainous billionaire industrialist (Alan Bates). The neo-Nazis orchestrate a fiendish plan: They kidnap three Russian nuclear scientists, force them to rebuild the bomb in the Ukraine, then ship it by cargo freighter from Haifa to Baltimore and launch a full-scale attack on the city-in the middle of a championship football game attended by the President of the United States-in order to blame it all on Russia and thereby start World War III.

Russia pitted in a nuclear war against the U.S.? Everybody’s nightmare come true. The Russians are innocent, but cool C.I.A. agent Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck) is the only one who knows the truth, and nobody else will listen. His boss (Morgan Freeman) is his only ally, but he’s one of the blast victims in an explosion that leaves the President (jaw-tightening James Cromwell) with just a small bandage and an urge to retaliate. While the action hopscotches from the Syrian desert to Moscow to Vienna and back to Langley, Va., it’s up to Jack to stay one step ahead of the audience and the warmongering goofballs in the American military and save the world from global destruction. Whew!

It would be a job even for Harrison Ford, but now that Jack is being played by a younger, prettier cover boy for Wheaties and Bic Microtrack smooth shaves, you just gotta marvel at the way he thwarts the counteroffensives with cell phones, digital cable and the Internet-all in time to get the girl. Miraculously, Mr. Affleck manages to be audible over the soundtrack’s hammering cacophony, the arias by Verdi and Puccini, the screeching rock ‘n’ roll “Star Spangled Banner.”

None of this holds up under close scrutiny (imagine Air Force One in the middle of an attack against the Soviets with the lines busy and nobody able to make a phone call!). Clancy fans who have followed the career of Jack Ryan, and who therefore know he rises to head the C.I.A. and even gets elected President, may wonder how he suddenly got to be 28 years old in a movie that’s set in the future. Don’t ask, don’t tell. The good news is that director Phil Alden Robinson keeps you on the edge of your seat with your mouth hanging open. The film has an assured arc; the script by Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne is tightly constructed; the performances are realistic (especially Irish actor Ciarán Hinds as Russian president Nemerov, whose capacity for destruction coexists with a deeply rooted sense of humanity); and the stunning visual effects include enough exploding F-16′s, B-2′s and Blackhawk helicopters to keep you in a state of red alert.

But aren’t we in a state of red alert already? The movie may seem absurd, but maybe Tom Clancy knows something about why we deserve to have our nerves fried. Just when you’re convinced a nuclear bomb could never arrive undetected in a port like Baltimore, technical advisors in Washington assure us that six million crates arrive on U.S. docks by cargo ship each year, and that only 2 percent of the containers are ever inspected. Holy hydrogen, it’s always something.

Trashy Atrocity

Who do we contact for an explanation of Jennifer Lopez? How did this career slip through the metal detectors? Her large measurements dwarf a small talent: She can’t sing, she can’t act, but here she is in our faces, raking in millions while struggling to do both.

You get plenty of derrière in Enough , a mindlessly irresponsible film about wife-bashing whose title is also the appropriate response to the J. Lo invasion. What you don’t get in Enough is rational or enlightening answers to troubling issues. Advancing the cause of battered women has never been one of Hollywood’s proudest endeavors. Enough trivializes an important crisis, reduces it to an almost comic embarrassment.

Enough ‘s lame script seems to have been written for gerbils; the plot you can write on the head of a bobby pin. Despite that famous caboose, J. Lo plays a tough, dishy waitress called “Slim.” If you can believe her as a hash-slinger in a greasy-spoon diner (“Burgers! Pies! Chops!”), you’ll buy Enron stocks at the dollar store. But there she is, in a series of hideous wigs, slapping ketchup on the fries, when she meets and marries the man of her dreams, a rich contractor named Mitch who is handsome, charming, crazy and impulsive-the kind of eight-by-10 glossy a girl like Slim could take home to mother, if she had one.

Since the dream lover is played by Billy Campbell, the all-American nice guy from TV’s Once and Again , everything seems too good to be true. It is. Before she can settle with her dreamy new husband and dreamy new scene-stealing baby into her dreamy new Martha Stewart kitchen and perfect her tuna surprise, Slim’s dreams turn into nightmares. Mitch is a control freak and closet psycho who bashes her around when she discovers hubby’s been sleeping in a lot of other bimbos’ beds besides her own.

The police won’t help. The in-laws are powerless. Wearing little more than a Band-Aid, Slim scoops up the baby and runs to Michigan, Seattle, San Francisco-anywhere she can find a new wig. Mitch stalks her, cancels her credit cards, freezes her bank account. He hires goons disguised as F.B.I. agents to trash the apartment of her friendly ex-boyfriend (Dan Futterman) while she hides in a closet. He dispatches his best buddy (Noah Wyle) to wreck her S.U.V. Tired of running from this yuppie brute, Slim decides to fight back. Enter Fred Ward as the long-lost father who finances her new career as a karate-chopping warrior goddess high on estrogen. While the movie telegraphs what’s coming in every scene with annoying subheadings (“How They Met!”, “Our Happy Family!”, “Get Out!”, “You Can Run!”), Slim prepares for physical combat with a course in self-defense. In the end, she returns to L.A. dressed like a cat burglar and, with an arsenal of high-tech toys, state-of-the-art security alarms, brass knuckles and the climbing skills of a ninja, she breaks into Mitch’s new house loaded for bear and beats the living crap out of him. During the bloody and nauseating assault, frenzied man-hating female yahoos in the audience screamed “Whip his ass!” and “Kill!” This is when you’ll find yourself tempted to repeat the title of this trashy atrocity: Enough indeed.

Little more than a silly replay of the crummy 1991 Julia Roberts flick Sleeping with the Enemy , this dumb domestic-revenge fantasy has only one message: If a guy treats you wrong, kill the sonuvabitch. Director Michael Apted, who has seen prouder days elsewhere, carefully avoids revealing the actual fate of the husband, but after being kicked, thrown through windows and coffee tables of solid glass, knifed and riddled with bullets, there’s no question of survival. Mitch is clearly dead, yet nobody arrests the indomitable J. Lo-not for breaking and entering, not for carrying an unlicensed deadly weapon, not for murder.

Is there no legal recourse for a battered wife? While the statistics rise and the clinics for abuse burst at the seams, isn’t it time for revised protection laws? These are questions a responsible filmmaker should someday address soberly in a film with more substance than Enough .

“Men are like land mines,” warns J. Lo’s best friend, played by a wasted Juliette Lewis. That’s the message here, and a number of talented people go down in flames to get it across. Playing a filthy rotten jerk in Brooks Brothers cashmere may be a stretch for the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Billy Campbell, but it’s not a role likely to advance his film career. Enough is about what can happen when a girl forsakes the art of the casserole for the art of murder. It’s also about the kind of head-crunching that goes on when sane people trash their talents to create a vehicle for Jennifer Lopez. Artistically challenged everywhere but the gym, she does what she knows best, pumping trash and kicking balls on her way to stardom. You go, girl-but let me off at the next stop.

Correction

In my recent review of the great Keely Smith, an editorial error was made, reducing her age to a mere 69. She is 74, and wants everyone to know she’s very proud of it.