What is the world coming to? In THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER — the first film adapted from a Tom Clancy novel — Sean Connery played a Russian submarine commander and Alec Baldwin played Clancy’s hero, Jack Ryan. Harrison Ford, who played Connery’s son in INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, took over the Jack Ryan role for two sequels (PATRIOT GAMES and CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, but instead of playing Ryan a third time he chose instead to play … a Russian submarine commander? (Check out K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER. Or, better yet, don’t.) And, by doing so, Ford left the franchise in the hands of … Ben Affleck?

Ford recently told Playboy that he didn’t do SUM because he couldn’t reconcile the tone of the film with the plot: a neo-Nazi hate group gets its hands on a nuclear weapon and detonates it during an American sports event, killing untold thousands and leveling half the city of Baltimore. Their goal is to frame the Russians so that the Americans will retaliate. Why try to destroy the U.S. or Russia when you can trick them into destroying each other? Ford wondered how the audience could care about a handful of characters when thousands were killed in a nuclear explosion, and eventually opted out of the film. It didn’t help matters that Clancy had been grumbling for years that Harrison Ford was too old to be playing Jack Ryan anyway. Neither the novelist nor the actor have been shy about their years-long war of public words.

When Paramount Pictures announced that Ben Affleck was taking over the part, Clancy endorsed him immediately and announced that he’d write a new Jack Ryan novel with Affleck in mind. But the author’s approval aside, Affleck had bigger things to worry about.

Taking over a well-known role from Harrison Ford must have been equally exciting and terrifying for Affleck. On one hand, you’re following in the footsteps of Harrison Ford. But on the other hand, well, you’re following in the footsteps of Harrison Ford. Ford is a man’s man without being macho about it. It’s what makes him human. Check out the scene in PATRIOT GAMES where Jack Ryan breaks down in the hospital as he’s telling his wife that their daughter’s spleen must be removed. Or check out any action scene to see that Jack Ryan is just as unsure of the outcome as we are. Few actors can play emotion and desperation as well as Ford can, and few are willing to plumb the depths of human frailty in an action movie as readily or as ably.

Affleck has always been an affable enough guy. Though he has two Michael Bay action blockbusters under his belt, ARMAGEDDON and PEARL HARBOR weren’t so much films as they were music videos with triple doses of debris. John Frankenheimer’s REINDEER GAMES was a better showcase for Affleck as an action man, and he handles himself quite well in THE SUM OF ALL FEARS. This is not a Harrison Ford performance. It’s a Ben Affleck performance, and the young actor proves there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

SUM isn’t a continuation of the previous films. In fact, it throws all canon out the window and restarts the franchise with fresh faces and relationships. In CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, for example, Ryan had his first encounter with a mysterious operative called John Clark. Willem Dafoe played the part. In this film, Affleck’s Ryan also gets a first meeting with John Clark under entirely different circumstances, and this time SCREAM veteran Liev Schreiber capably does the honors.

In the Ford films, Jack and his wife Cathy (Anne Archer) are married with children. In THE SUM OF ALL FEARS, Bridget Moynahan plays Dr. Cathy Muller, whom Ryan has only just started dating. The Admiral Greer character, played by James Earl Jones, has been replaced by a new character called William Cabot, played here by Morgan Freeman. It’s the same kind of mentor role but, since this film’s Jack Ryan is still new to the CIA, there’s a necessary and appropriate place for that kind of character.

John McTiernan (DIE HARD, PREDATOR) directed THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, and Phillip Noyce directed both of Ford’s entries. Phil Alden Robinson, best known for his excellent ensemble thriller SNEAKERS, takes the helm this time around and makes an intelligent, exciting film that puts characters and storytelling first. When the inevitable nuclear explosion happens, Robinson focuses not on the detonation itself but on how it affects characters like Ryan, Cabot and the world leaders who must make sense of what just happened. Some directors might have sent the camera spiraling through a CGI mushroom cloud, but Robinson handles the tragedy respectfully and therefore effectively.

In many ways, a younger version of Jack Ryan works well for this type of story. Even the Harrison Ford version sometimes seemed in over his head in the face of stifling bureaucracy, but Affleck’s character can’t call upon the years of experience and reputation that Ford’s character enjoyed. He has to learn as he goes, and the fate of the world is literally at stake. We also see Ryan trying to reconcile the nature of his globe-spanning, top-secret career with a romance that he desperately wants to last. Affleck and Moynahan play these moments particularly well.

The best thing going for THE SUM OF ALL FEARS is an incredible ensemble cast that starts big with Freeman and Affleck and features lots of respected genre faces. Philip Baker Hall is memorable as the U.S. Secretary of Defense. James Cromwell plays a U.S. President whose popularity is waning. But when the detonation happens, he has to rise to the occasion and make impossible decisions that are far bigger than any one man. Ciarin Hinds brings much dignity and resolve to the role of Nemerov, the Russian President. Action fans will be happy to see longtime Schwarzenegger collaborator Sven Ole-Thorsen and Philip Akin (WAR OF THE WORLDS, HIGHLANDER) in brief but important supporting roles.

THE SUM OF ALL FEARS is a well-made film that handles its subject matter with appropriate gravity. The last third of the film, which sees the United States and Russia on the brink of a war neither wants, deals deeply with character motivations that its cast handles with intensity and humanity. Thrown into the middle of it all is Jack Ryan, and Affleck proves himself worthy of the name at every turn.

Given the respectable box office success of THE SUM OF ALL FEARS, we’ll certainly be seeing Ben Affleck as Jack Ryan again. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see what kind of role Affleck pursues after DAREDEVIL. Maybe he can play a Russian submarine commander.