Spy films come in two flavors: character-driven, small-scale thrillers with an emphasis on tone, or plot-heavy adventures bursting with weapons and gadgetry. The Sum of All Fears falls into the latter category. Like other adaptations of Tom Clancy novels, it's filled with high-tech gear, impenetrable jargon, and crises that unfold at a furious pace. But this time, much of the story has already been eclipsed by real-life events.

When a nuclear bomb missing since 1973 turns up in the wrong hands, it enables Dressler (Alan Bates), a Viennese neo-fascist, to enact a deadly plan: pit the United States and Russia against each other, then pick up the pieces. Dressler is counting on the inexperience of new Russian leader Nemerov (Ciaran Hinds) to aid his plot, but he hasn't factored in tenacious Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck). A Nemerov expert, Ryan is picked by CIA director William Cabot (Morgan Freeman) to investigate a Russian lab decommissioning nuclear weapons. His research, and work by undercover spy John Clark (Liev Schreiber), reveals a plot to detonate a nuclear weapon that will kill the President and start World War III.

This is standard Clancy work, with all of the novelist's strengths and shortcomings on display. The film is filled with details that are hard to achieve and without a doubt expensive, but have nothing to do with the actual plot. It doesn't matter whether it's raining when Ryan returns from Russia, although it's pretty to look at. It doesn't matter if he knows how to beach a motorboat, if he crashes a stolen pickup, or if shadowy operative John Clark manages to break into a secret lab or not. The story goes on with or without these fillips. (It also proceeds without anyone acknowledging that apparently simultaneous events are occurring weeks and even months apart.)

Ben Affleck is the third actor to step into hero Jack Ryan's shoes. Younger than Alec Baldwin, and without the emotional heft of Harrison Ford, he lacks the physical presence that his role requires. Morgan Freeman is effortless as usual, although he isn't required to do much more than smile benignly at his protg. The rest of the cast tries its best to imitate people in power, but they are betrayed by laughably macho dialogue. Should there be a 'measured response'? Or will the President have 'the guts to take it to the next level'? If so, can someone still perform a 'flash override'?

The Sum of All Fears adds up to a checklist of war-game clichs and doomsday scenarios. Like the worst thrillers, it requires reams of exposition delivered on computer screens, helpfully read aloud by bystanders. But it's Clancy's insistence that intelligence agencies, and their access to information, will protect the country from terrorist attacks that now seems dangerously misguided.

--Daniel Eagan