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MOVIES : Mr. Nice Guy Dives Back Into Action : Harrison Ford returns to the genre that made him a star. In 'Patriot Games,' he inherits the role of the CIA agent from Alec Baldwin, but the production is in trouble with author Tom Clancy.

March 22, 1992|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer.

Harrison Ford took a deep breath and held it. And held it. And held it.

He closed his eyes and sat back in a high-legged director's chair, seemingly oblivious to the sounds of crew members hammering and shouting instructions nearby as they prepared to shoot the climactic scenes of Paramount Pictures' "Patriot Games."

As the seconds ticked by, Ford rocked slightly from side to side and then straightened up and looked down at his wristwatch. Forty seconds. Fifty seconds. One minute. He closed his eyes again, mentally bracing himself for the quiet agony to come. Seventy seconds. Eighty seconds. Still, his face remained expressionless.

Finally, his body no longer able to stand it, the actor exhaled softly.

"One minute and 33 seconds," he said, satisfied by his impromptu test of endurance.

In the hours ahead, Ford would be called on to test his body even further. Shot after shot, he would stand atop a make-believe reef on a huge tank at Sony Studios in Culver City and, clutching the wrists of a stuntman, hurtle beneath the surface of the water as a wave-making machine rocked up and down and lights crackled overhead to give the appearance of lightning.

As it was, the 49-year-old actor outlasted two stuntmen, who developed earaches from working 30 feet under water.

After each shot, Ford boosted himself out of the tank and walked to a video screen where director Phillip Noyce sucked on a cigarette and replayed the action over and over looking for minor slip-ups or awkward camera angles.

"When we were falling off the platform," Ford explained, "we were trapping so much air in our clothing we weren't sinking enough."

His suit and shoes bleeding water, Ford--a certified diver--went back to the tank and placed additional weights in his pockets. He then cupped a plastic mask over his mouth and nose and began inhaling pure oxygen, a technique that would allow him to hyperventilate and stay longer under water. The danger, a crew member said, was that Ford's lungs could get tricked into thinking they were oxygen-starved and he might black out. Divers in scuba gear were stationed nearby.

For Ford, the star of both the "Star Wars" and Indiana Jones trilogies, the making of "Patriot Games" means a return to action films. "It seemed like a good style of film for me to do right now," he said. "I had done a couple of softer movies ('Presumed Innocent,' 'Regarding Henry') back-to-back and I thought I ought to hit somebody in my next movie or else lose my license to do so by not exercising that option."

For Paramount, the stakes are higher. The $40-million movie based on Tom Clancy's best-selling book is scheduled to open June 5, going up against "Far and Away," the Ron Howard film starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and "Mo' Money" with comedian Damon Wayans.

But the early summer will also see stiff competition coming from "Lethal Weapon 3" starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover and "Alien 3" starring Sigourney Weaver. On June 19, what is expected to be the summer's 600-pound gorilla, "Batman Returns," weighs in with Michael Keaton reprising his title role, Michelle Pfeiffer playing Catwoman and Danny DeVito the Penguin.

Paramount is banking that "Patriot Games" will mirror the success of its 1990 Clancy submarine thriller "The Hunt For Red October," which starred Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin. That film generated gross revenues of $200 million worldwide.

Baldwin, in fact, was set to reprise his role as CIA analyst Jack Ryan in "Patriot Games" and had even spent a week with the writers. Then Baldwin was out. Neufeld says Baldwin wanted Paramount to assure him he would be wrapped up with filming in 14 weeks so he could appear on Broadway in "A Streetcar Named Desire," but Paramount refused.

It so happened that a project Ford was attached to at the studio fell through about the same time. In the weeks ahead, a new Jack Ryan would be born.

The film begins when Jack Ryan (Ford) travels to London for a combination holiday/lecture tour. Ryan, who has left the CIA for a new career and to be closer to his family, is on his way to meet his wife and daughter in a square near Buckingham Palace, when he stumbles into an attempt by Irish gunmen to kidnap a member of the British Royal Family.

The attack is bloody. Acting on impulse, Ryan rushes into the fray, disarms one of the terrorists and then shoots and kills another one, who turns out to be the 17-year-old brother of Sean Miller (Sean Bean), the man Ryan disarmed.

"The man he disarmed and captured is sentenced to prison," director Noyce explains. "He has lost his father in the Irish troubles and now his brother in his brother's first mission. . . . Very quickly, he abandons his political agenda and turns all of his power toward revenge. That need for revenge becomes a cancer that eats away at him."

Ryan's wife, Cathy (Anne Archer), and daughter, Sally (Thora Birch), become targets of the terrorist and Ryan, in a Faustian bargain, is forced to rejoin the CIA in order to save his family.

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