INTERVIEW / Covert operations: Kevin Jackson talks to Phillip Noyce about taking on the James Bond of the Nineties in Patriot Games

Helicopters dart low across the sand dunes, their air-to-ground missiles are primed, the order to attack is given. This, a climactic moment in Patriot Games, has - to put it in the most kindly way - a familiar look. We've all seen such preludes to slaughter before in films from Apocalypse Now to Rambo III, and we know exactly what we're in for next: the deafening whine and crash of high explosives, limp khaki bodies hurled into the air like broken dolls, yells of agony and buckets of blood.

It doesn't happen. Instead, the director cuts away from the hot action to a hushed command room on the other side of the planet where men and women in sharp suits follow the action on video screens. Infra-red scans from a satellite show the outlines of human figures, which start to spasm, blur and explode in disconcerting silence as the enemy is bombed into cinders. The suits murmur approval. You can almost hear the cry of that sleazy producer played by Steve Martin in Grand Canyon: 'What happened to the money shots?'

What, indeed? Did the director, Phillip Noyce, simply overspend his huge budget so he had nothing left for his big scene? Or was he, as some viewers have wondered, trying to remind us of images we've seen, not many times before, but once - during Operation Desert Storm? And so trying to provoke the same qualms about the ethics of hi-tech surgical strikes that some Westerners felt when the results were shown off in televised debriefings?

'Absolutely,' Noyce agrees with the last suggestions. 'For me that sequence is the most important in the film because, hopefully, it captures some of the moral ambiguity of the story. We see the Good Guys meting out punishment to the Bad Guys with a lethal efficiency which in some ways seems to be like the gas chamber - that is, more merciful than a terrorist bomb, but in some ways more questionable.'

There are a number of other points in Patriot Games at which its otherwise routine substance becomes more piquant, and most of them seem to derive from tension between the material and its director. Patriot Games is adapted from one of Tom Clancy's best-selling novels about the former CIA agent Jack Ryan. The part was taken by Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October, but has been usurped here by Harrison Ford, who will continue to play the part in all the Clancy films to come in return for a contract containing a record-breaking number of millions. The producers' hope is that Jack Ryan will become the James Bond of the Nineties.

Noyce, on the other hand, is new to such territory. His films to date, all made in his native Australia, have been the sort of intelligent, textured work that critics generally loved and the masses barely noticed, until his splendid psycho-thriller Dead Calm finally made him look sexy to Hollywood. Understandably, Noyce had one or two reservations about his big-budget debut and its source. 'I thought the novel was a good read but I found its morality very black and white. So much of the force of Clancy's writing comes from the extremity of his position. He's a long way from Genghis Khan, but he's certainly right of centre (he laughs) and a lot of the force, a lot of the narrative momentum comes from that fact. His world view and mine are a long way apart, so you're faced with the problem of adapting an avowedly right-wing novelist without diffusing the dramatic momentum of his story.'

Clancy's plot begins with Ryan foiling an assassination strike on the Royal Family by an IRA splinter group. One of the terrorists is killed, and so begins a ping-pong match of revenge and counter-revenge in which a demented gunman (Sean Bean) stalks Ryan's family and Ryan stalks him in turn. Noyce was unhappy with what he felt was an anti-Irish bias in the novel, not least since 'as an Australian, I was brought up in an Anglo-Irish country - part of the weirdness of our personality is that inside every Australian there's an Irishman fighting an Englishman'.

He duly introduced some changes, notably by making Bean's motives for revenge more personal - the dead terrorist is now shown to be his brother - and hinting at parallels between Ryan and his enemy: 'Hopefully the audience will think once or twice about the similarities between the two men, and wonder whether the goody couldn't have been in the baddy's shoes.'

None of this striving after psychological and political balance has prevented some American liberals from taxing the film both with anti-Irish prejudice and with political incorrectness on all fronts. Noyce pleads his good intentions, but agrees that in many regards he was at the mercy of his job. He had to appease the Clancy fans, he had to appease the Harrison Ford fans, and, above all, 'you're servicing a machine which in some ways is the equivalent of a sausage factory. You always want to consider yourself to be an artist, but when you've got those pressures and responsibilities you pretty soon realise the truth of the old adage that a movie director is an artist in the morning and a businessman in the afternoon . . . and that sometimes you've only got time for the artistry after afternoon tea.'

One area in which Noyce's artistry definitely shows through the sausage- meat, though, is his deft and unusual handling of action sequences - that helicopter attack at one remove, an escape from a prison van 'in which,' Noyce laughs, 'most of the action happens off- screen]' He even manages to wring something fresh out of that hoary old prop, the car chase, when Sean Bean prowls after Ryan's carefree wife and child with a big gun.

'Tension in film, as far as I've been able to work out, is all based on pre- knowledge . . . that is, the audience needs to know before the characters with whom they sympathise that those characters are under threat. Once you've got that pre-knowledge, you can do one of two things. You can beat it up by all sorts of cinematic tricks: zoom shots; rapid movements; trick cuts; and music.

'If, however, you've established the tension device of pre-knowledge very firmly, you can work the other way. Audiences are very sophisticated these days, they really do know all the tricks, and they know when they're being manipulated. In other words, if you are cool about the way you make them tense . . . Well, it's like when you're playing cards, you never want the other person to know your hand, you've got to have a poker face. So in that sequence what I was trying to do was to be cool, not to let the audience know that I was manipulating them, but to make them really believe the feelings of tension.'

At the moment, Noyce has no plans to be involved in the other Tom Clancy / Jack Ryan movies. Even so, the experience of working in the Hollywood factory can't have been too daunting for him, since in three weeks' time he will commence principal photography on Sliver, a thriller which reunites two key players from Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. Admirers of his earlier work might be downcast at the prospect of his directorial signature becoming yet more blurred, but Noyce himself is more philosophical:

'I'll tell you one thing you really do appreciate about making a film on this level. I've made, what is it, six films now, and it took me just as much nervous energy to make the ones that weren't seen by a lot of people as it did to make Patriot Games. All I'm saying is that I appreciate the machine's ability to get a film in front of an audience. Being a part of that machine had certain limitations, but it has great compensations, too.'

'Patriot Games' opens tomorrow

(Photograph omitted)

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