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Ford has a better idea

There is a new Jack Ryan movie out this summer, but Harrison Ford is not starring in it. The character he played in "Clear and Present Danger" (1994) and "Patriot Games" (1992) is played by Ben Affleck this time, and Ford is starring as Alexei Vostrikov, the captain of the Soviet submarine in "K-19." You suspect the submarine may be doomed when you consider the movie's subtitle: "K-19: The Widowmaker."

I got some e-mails, I said, from people saying they understand everything about Jack Ryan in the Tom Clancy thriller "The Sum Of All Fears," except why he seems to be 25 years younger than he used to be. Ford smiled that slow, wide smile that screenwriters can use in place of dialogue.

"Younger, and cuter," Ford said during a recent stop here. "If you ask Tom Clancy, and I'm not suggesting that you do.... " Pause. "I was always too old for the role. So finally he has his way. I'm happy for everybody's success with the film."

You don't sound like you miss not having done it.

"No. I was presented with a situation in which I didn't want to engage, and so I passed on it."

So actually you were making "K-19" instead.

"It would have been one or the other."

Ford probably made the right choice. He plays a different kind of character, a captain with a Russian accent, a diehard party-liner. And "K-19" is rare in that it's an American movie told entirely through the point of view of the Russian characters.

"I can't think of another film that has done that," he said.

The submarine is the jewel in the Russian underwater fleet, a new nuclear-powered boat armed with nuclear missiles. Its captain is nominally Polenin (Liam Neeson), but so crucial is the maiden voyage that the veteran Vostrikov is put on board as senior captain. Soon it becomes clear the sub was commissioned before it was shipshape, and when there's a nuclear reactor accident, disaster looms, and the two captains are at each other's throats.

"The movie is based on a real event," Ford said. "This submarine did exist, and it was pushed into service before it was ready. The reactor cooling system failed, and men had to go into the reactor and expose themselves to radiation to fix it."

There were supposed to be radiation suits on board, but, the crew learns, there was a shortage, so the factory sent chemical hazard suits instead. Useless."They really thought they were going to have a fission event," Ford told me.

"They were being closely shadowed by an American destroyer, and my character thought that if his ship blew up in a nuclear explosion in close proximity to an American ship, he could well be the instrument initiating World War III."Ford said the movie is not a documentary--his character is a "literary construction"--but in St. Petersburg, he met men who survived the cruise: "They were still very emotional, and that transferred to me as an obligation to get it right."

Ford's Russian accent is there in the role, but not thick. You forget about it after a while, but at first, well, coming from Indiana Jones, it sounds unusual.

"I wanted people to hear it and say, 'Oh, this isn't going to be a typical Harrison Ford picture,' " he said.

"Besides, I grew up at the movies thinking all Russians spoke with British accents, so this was a little different."

It is possible that Ford's movies have grossed more than those of any other actor in Hollywood history. If you add up "Star Wars" pictures and the "Indiana Jones" pictures and all the others, it makes a nice pile. And now, he said, he and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are talking about returning to Indiana Jones for a fourth episode.

"We've had story meetings and a writer is assigned and scribbling away, and if we get a script we like, we've all held a slot in 2004. I'd love to do it again."

The Indy series has held up, he thinks, because "we complicated the character a little more every time we went back to him. And the ambition to make a good film never wavered; that has a lot to do with Steven taking the obligation of directing every time as well."

Ford just turned 60, which worries him not at all: "The roles are just as interesting, maybe more interesting. Look at Sean Connery. He's only 12 years older than I am, even though he plays my father from time to time. So I think I've got at least 12 more years of useful shelf life."

Have you ever noticed, I said, how everybody in Los Angeles seems to claim you worked on their kitchen in the days when you were a carpenter?

The smile again.

"If I did the amount of carpentry work that's credited to me, I would have had an 80-year career as a carpenter. People say Harrison Ford worked on their kitchen, and I say what I want to know is, why didn't he do a better job?"

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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