RECAP: Patriot Games

Patriot Games (1992): Phillip Noyce

One doesn’t expect a family vacation to London to devolve into a worldwide run for cover from a group of irish freedom fighters too dangerous for the Irish Republican Army, but that’s exactly what happens to Jack Ryan.

In this movie, the famed CIA analyst is CIA analyst no more, but he’s dragged back into the fold after he foils an assassination attempt against a member of the British aristocracy.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Jack Ryan fights an ex-IRA member after killing the man’s brother. 

Hero (4/10)

Former CIA agent Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) begins Patriot Games on vacation in London with his wife, Cathy (Anne Archer) and daughter, Sally (Thora Birch). He’s about to give a speech to some British naval representatives, and he’s decided to throw out his prepared remarks and “wing it.”

After leaving the meeting he spots a group of ski-mask-wearing goons attacking people in another car. One slides beneath the target car and places a bomb. Ryan also sees his family waiting for him across the street. He implores his family to take cover.

The bomb explodes. A change comes over Ryan. Later, he’ll explain his thinking. “I wasn’t thinking,” he says. He waded into the fight because they “just pissed me off.” Ryan charges into the fight and tackles a guy trying to blow open the car door. He fights him and takes his gun. Ryan shoots two men dead and is shot in his shoulder. “It was pure rage,” he says of the incident.

Jack, Cathy, and Sally Ryan, three solid WASPs protecting themselves from the nasty Irish intent on killing them.

That rage gets Ryan into hot water with an Irish freedom fighter named Sean Miller (Sean Bean). Ryan kills Miller’s younger brother in the attack, when he was a day from retirement. Can you believe the injustice? I mean, it was actually on his first day of freedom fighting. Ryan makes news back home and earns both a Purple Heart and is named Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order. Ryan’s enemy earns a trip to the clink.

Miller turns from freedom fighting to revenge, and Ryan is ready to trade blow for blow. Ryan rejoins the CIA specifically to find Miller. He does this after another attempt on his life in Maryland outside, and I mean yards outside, the US Naval Academy. He challenges the leader of the IRA inside an Irish pub. That takes guts, and Ryan’s got plenty of them. “I will fucking destroy you,” he says to the guy.

Thanks to some timely PTSD, Ryan cracks the case, placing a redheaded woman at the scene of the London bombing and his near-murder outside the Naval Academy. This while standing in the woman’s bathroom.

Ryan stands between his family and the people trying to kill them. He’s not scared, and he never backs down. He might be an old guy, but he was a Marine. Once a Marine, always a Marine.

Ford simmers as Ryan. It’s clear why he’s the only actor to reprise the Ryan role. He’s tough, but you never sense he could beat you up. I assume that describes most members of the CIA, and credits their success in toppling governments worldwide.

Villain (5/10)

Matching Ryan’s rage is Sean Miller, an IRA spook who recruited his minor brother into the cause. Miller, his brother, and some other fanatics are on hand in London to carry out an assassination on Lord Holmes (James Fox), a member of Britain’s elite and the UK’s governor of Northern Ireland.

This is the guy the IRA wants to kill. Don’t you want to kill him?

During the ensuing attack, Miller coincidentally endangers Jack Ryan and his family, and that was a huge mistake. Ryan attacks and kills Miller’s brother. That attack further radicalizes the radical, and makes Miller’s mission personal. You can see his change of heart as he watches his brother die and memorizes Ryan’s face.

Miller has nothing to say to the police or the courts, but he’s all talk at his trial after Ryan leaves the stand. He rots in his cell glaring at a newspaper photo of the “hero” Jack Ryan.

He wants to forget about Ryan, he really does, but he cannot. The American has consumed him, and it will consume his friends as well. Miller travels Stateside to try to kill Ryan’s wife and daughter, going as far as hanging out of a van careening down the highway while gunning down the car in a neighboring lane.

Look at how mad Sean Biller is getting.

Miller is not the leader of his group of terrorists. Kevin O’Donnell (Patrick Bergin) is, and Miller is along for the ride. That makes him an interesting choice for a villain. Miller is on a personal quest that no one else realizes.

Miller’s weapon of choice is an Uzi. He loves spraying rounds from this gun. From a moving van, in a house, on a boat–Miller will shoot this gun any time, any place. He must be admired for that. He kills just about everyone he meets. He kills his captors, kills a rare book dealer, and even kills the snitch in Lord Holmes’s employ who helped them find Ryan in Maryland.

Yes, this is a movie where Sean Bean dies, but you expected that from the get-go.

Action/Effects (3/10)

Patriot Games plays games with its viewers. You won’t find much violence against the Ryan family, but you will find the threat of violence against said family. Take, for example, the late-movie raid against the Ryan household in Maryland.

Miller accompanies his group of fanatics to Maryland. The crew of about six raids the Ryan household during a dinner party with the Ryans, Robby, Lord Holmes, and some other people. Lord Holmes’s secretary proves to be the rat who sold out his master, as we see when he shoots dead one of the guards inside the house.

The traitor on the right.

Ryan lights some candles for the guests as he notices the power to the boathouse remains on, meaning that the power loss came from inside the house. He also notices that the guards outside are not responding. That’s because they are dead.

Ryan is a quick thinker, and he immediately identifies the secretary as the traitor and source of the trouble. Ryan and Robby throw the guy around the basement and discover the murdered guard. Ryan wants answers. He shoots the guy’s knee to get him to talk about the raid.

Most of the guests flee to the basement with the traitor. Robby has the only gun. The Ryan women quietly climb the stairs to the bedroom. Ryan stays on the ground floor to gather intel.

That’s a hell of a face.

The next few minutes are quiet, tense moments of characters chasing each other. At least four black-clad terrorists wearing night vision scopes tiptoe through the house. Ryan was smart enough to realize this earlier when he was in the basement and chose not to turn the power back on.

Cathy finds the shotgun in the closet but can’t find the shells. Some sounds alert the terrorists to their location, and they scamper upstairs. It appears Annette is the first to engage Cathy. Cathy delivers a rifle butt to Annette’s face, knocking her out. She and Sally climb into the attic. Ryan joins them.

A dropped flashlight draws Miller upstairs. Remember, this guy shoots at everything. He sprays bullets at the ceiling/attic floor. The Ryans climb out a window onto their roof and down it. They enter the basement from the doors leading outside.

All the good guys are in the basement now. The enemies know they are in there. Two of the terrorists enter the basement from inside the house. Now is the time for Ryan to turn on the lights, which he does. The lights blind the two wearing night vision scopes. Robby shoots both of them dead.

When Jack Ryan gets mad, people die.

But here comes ol’ shoot everywhere Sean Miller. He shoots into the basement before poking his head inside, which is a very smart move more movie characters should make. He steps into the doorway and shoots more, killing the traitor. Everyone is expendable to this guy.

And there’s your big pre-climax sequence. More threat of violence than violence. A big game of hide-and-seek. A scene that would have been awesome to watch–the SAS attack on the Libyan IRA camp–is shown on thermal satellite imaging. We are meant to imagine the attack through the eyes of the CIA. More hide-and-seek stuff.

Sidekicks (/8)

The Ryan women are as tough as the patriarch. Cathy is eager for Ryan to kill Miller. She knows the Irishman won’t stop until the Ryans are dead, and she’s not afraid to stand up to him. “He’s never going to leave us alone.”

Samuel L. Jackson and James Earl Jones are on hand to back up Ryan. Robby awards Ryan with the Purple Heart, and he’s at the Ryan’s house to shoot at some bad guys. Admiral Greer provides support at the CIA in the fatherly way only Jones can provide.

Henchmen (4/8)

Miller’s best, most interesting ally is a brunette/redhead assassin named Annette. Annette appears first in a pub, seducing an IRA leader. The two take it back to his place, where she shoots him in the head while wearing black lingerie.

Beautiful…and deadly.

Annette doesn’t do much after killing that guy. She’s on hand to bust Miller out of the prison transport. She’s there to help plan the attack in the US on Lord Holmes. And she helps raid the Ryan house. Unfortunately for her, her existence in the Libyan camp as a woman makes the camp easier to identify from satellite photos.

Some other lads are eager to further the IRA’s plans, but Miller ignores them all because he’s on his own journey.

Stunts (0/6)

Snippets of explosive action punctuate Patriot Games. Jack Ryan is not a field agent, something his superior directly states. He’s an analyst, meaning he doesn’t fight. Ryan does fight off a potential assassin outside the Naval Academy. Or, rather, he tricks the guy and then gets his ass kicked before guards shoot the assassin dead.

The car bombing opening the movie.

Meanwhile, on the highway, Miller tries to kill the Ryan ladies by hanging out a van door. He succeeds in shooting the glass before the Ryan car crashes and the van is forced to continue driving the highway.

Great example of Miller blasting away with his favorite weapon–an Uzi.

During Miller’s escape from the prisoner transfer, two police cars are exploded by bombs or missiles. We aren’t sure because the explosions occur while the camera remains inside the transport van. Maybe the budget went to all those shiny overhead shots of the Sahara and Annapolis. I would have appreciated some explosions!

Climax (2/6)

Once all the party guests leave the Ryan’s basement, they are home free. Or so they think. They know that two boats await on the water below the cliffs. The camera follows Miller, O’Donnell, and Annette as they chase their quarry. Miller fires on the boat as it escapes.

O’Donnell tries to reign in Miller. They have to keep Holmes alive for hostage purposes. “We’re past that now,” Miller shouts above the storm. They should have guessed Miller was far past hostage taking long ago. The Irish rappel the cliff and swim to the other boat. We see the other potential hostages hide on shore. The escaping boat is a decoy, driven only by Ryan.

Some baddies in the desert.

Miller drives the boat. Once the wind blows back the canopy to reveal Ryan alone on the boat, the others want to turn back, knowing they are fooled. Miller refuses. He kills O’Donnell and Annette. He said they were past that.

Miller, still holding his machine gun, sprays bullets at Ryan. Ryan isn’t hit, but his engine is, and something on the boat catches fire. It might be raining, but it won’t rain enough to put out the fire. Ryan grabs a fire extinguisher as Miller’s boat pulls beside. Miller leaps onto Ryan’s boat.

Ryan strikes first, delivering two punches. Miller finds a pole and slaps Ryan’s face with it. The waves and rain continue to hammer the boat and its occupants. Ryan takes the pole, but Miller finds an anchor. The two clash. Miller jabs the anchor at Ryan’s head but implants it into the floor instead.

The two men stand, and Miller chokes Ryan with the pole, which he has control of again. Ryan gets an idea. He (probably) lets Miller think he’s about to win. Ryan uses all his energy to ram Miller backward and onto the exposed anchor point projecting from the boat’s floor. Bye Bye Sean Miller.

Ryan leaps off the boat moments before it crashes into an atoll and explodes. Soon after, a rescue chopper from Langley shines a light on Ryan and saves him.

Jokes (0/4)

Harrison Ford telling Richard Harris “I will fucking destroy you” was the funniest part of the movie.

Setting (0/4)

The last place I expected to see this movie take me was Libya. That’s exactly where Miller goes after escaping prison in England. Seeing Irish people on Saharan dunes looks strange.

That’s northern Ireland, right?

The locations in Patriot Games were boring. Despite many scenes set in London and Belfast, not a single landmark was shown. I’m unsure what city the rare book shop was in, the climax took place on open water at night in a rain storm.

Commentary (0/2)

Patriot Games features the Central Intelligence Agency, the Irish Republican Army, and the British Royal family. Yet the story strips the politics away for a blood vendetta.

But make no mistake, the geopolitics of the early 1990s are a big part of the plot. Ryan only gets involved after he’s in the right place at the right time to foil Miller’s attempt at kidnapping Lord Holmes. A splinter faction of the IRA wants to kidnap Lord Holmes, indeed strike at the British royal family, to put pressure on its withdrawal from Northern Ireland.

Ryan talking shit to the leader of the IRA. That’s a bold move. Takes guts.

The CIA has tracked the IRA for years, obviously, but it’s forced to follow Miller’s splinter cell to Libyan bases. An Act II sequence lets us watch Ryan as he watches an SAS strike force raid the compound where he suspects Miller to be. This after combing through dozens of satellite photos of the Saharan base.

The mouthpiece of the IRA disavows Miller’s actions, and he wades into the fray to keep his organization clean. How much does he know? He knows who Miller’s female assassin is, so he knows something, even if he didn’t order a hit on the Ryan family.

The movie fails to comment on the IRA’s political stance. We only know what these splinter activists want, and mostly they want to kill Jack Ryan and kidnap Lord Holmes. Why they want the royal is left unsaid.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

The Ryan women are treated well. Cathy, a doctor, treats her husband immediately after he’s shot in London. Sally, the daughter, gets a few lines. She is dumb enough to fall for the replaced goldfish trick, though. Cathy gets a solid storyline. She operates on a patient in a thread that runs throughout the movie.

Annette is the best assassin in Ireland, and she helps plan the murder of Lord Holmes.


  • (1) The movie uses great overhead shots of Maryland.
  • All three Ryan family members spend time in a hospital.
  • Prisoners should never be transferred between facilities. That’s always when they break out.

Summary (19/68): 28%

Patriot Games drafted a new actor to play Jack Ryan. Harrison Ford is good one. He’s a guy who wants a nice life for his family, and then one day a group of Irish thugs ruin his afternoon by nearly killing his family. This is the classic Ford role–annoyed guy.

I’d have enjoyed more geopolitics and scenes in Ireland then the Ryan home life. I was never invested in the Ryan family unit enough to worry about them. I wanted to see more action sequences, though I understand why the filmmakers gave us distance from them. We are meant to view the world through Jack Ryan’s eyes, aided by satellites circling the Earth and from a cushy office in Virginia.