'Center': Clancy's view, if not his words

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Tom Clancy's Op Center" is "MacGyver" with guns. Big guns -- pointed at the U.S. of A. Nothing less than world peace is on the line in this NBC mini-series, and the forces of good have to be mobilized to save us from nuclear destruction.

Harry Hamlin, who was once a big star on "L.A. Law," plays Paul Hood, the government intelligence officer who helps lead the forces of good as director of an elite crisis unit called Op Center. Hood is appointed by a liberal president, who can't keep his pants zipped and secretly wants the Op Center shut down as an outdated remnant of the Cold War.

But, as several characters remind us innumerable times in the four-hour mini-series that starts at 9 tomorrow night on WBAL (Channel 11), it's a dangerous world out there. Not surprisingly, our liberal-leaning hero and his president get an education in real-world-politick, Tom Clancy-style.

Clancy didn't actually write the script for this film or for the best-selling paperback book that carries his name in the title. He and co-executive producer Steve Pieczenik came up with the Op Center storyline, then hired writers to do the book and script -- in a new kind of made-for-TV-and-bookstores authorial assembly line.

The crisis that sets the TV melodrama in motion is the theft of nuclear warheads from Ukraine. With the weapons, somebody is now in a position to hold up the world for ransom. In case that's not clear, it seems like every member of the Op Center team gets at least two chances to say, "Those warheads need to be recovered!"

The team includes Carl Weathers as deputy director, Lindsay Frost as team psychiatrist, Bo Hopkins as assistant deputy director, and John Savage as the adviser.

"There's plenty of trouble out there. Some of it will find us," is the way Weathers' character explains the purpose of Op Center to his new boss, Hood.

And when trouble comes knocking on the door of these patriots, the politicians can be counted on only to make matters worse.

Ken Howard plays the pudgy, indiscreet president whose sexual dalliances get him -- if not the world -- in hot water. The president is neither bright nor moral.

Most women aren't a great deal of help either in this worldview, as the president's mistress (Deidre Hall) and Hood's wife (Kim Cattrall) nearly bring us to the eve of destruction.

It's the military -- the brass in uniform and the young commandos who risk their lives on secret missions -- who are the heroes here.

While the right-wing politics are predictable and the ideology heavy-handed, the four hours do clip along quickly as we ricochet around the world with members of the Op Center trying to save mankind as we know it. But don't expect the kind of style or ambience that the Brits or HBO might have brought to such a story.

In terms of story, production values and acting, the most apt comparison really is "MacGyver," except the good guys here are allowed to have weapons beyond the string, duct tape and chemistry set with which MacGyver used to save the world on a weekly basis for ABC.

But it's the Clancy worldview, not production values, that will attract viewers, I suspect. Had he lived to see it, this is a mini-series that might have convinced John Wayne to do television. As it is, Wilford Brimley plays the Wayne role -- an admiral who is both boss and father figure to Hood.

"I didn't invent this world, son," the admiral tells Hood. "I just live in it."

Such insight, such stoicism, such quiet courage! And all for the greater honor and glory of a February sweeps ratings victory for NBC.

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