Wednesday 30 December 2015

Movie Review: The Hunt For Red October (1990)

A Cold War submarine thriller, The Hunt For Red October is a classy action movie centred on a Soviet commander gone rogue and the consequent high stakes cat-and-mouse game between the superpowers in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Soviet navy launches its latest submarine, a gigantic typhoon-class vessel named Red October capable of running in near total silence. At the helm of the maiden voyage is Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), the most respected Soviet naval commander, with Captain Vasily Borodin (Sam Neill) as his second in command. American CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) is alerted to the Red October's launch, and CIA Vice Admiral James Greer (James Earl Jones) and National Security Adviser Jeffrey Pelt (Richard Jordan) take a great interest when the entire Soviet fleet also sets sail, potentially in preparation for a war-like mission.

It is then apparent that Captain Ramius has gone rogue, and is charting his own course across the Atlantic to execute an authorized mission. Ryan is convinced that Ramius and his officers want to defect, and Pelt gives him three days to try and make contact with Red October and confirm its intention. The USS Dallas submarine commanded by Commander Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn) is closest to Red October, and attempts to keep track of the Soviet sub. With both the Soviet and American fleets giving chase while guarding against each other, Ryan has to take risks and anticipate Ramius' next move to avoid a potential international catastrophe.

An adaptation of the Tom Clancy novel directed by John McTiernan, The Hunt For Red October is an effective underwater chase movie, filled with sleek and stealthy submarine machinery. McTiernan generates and maintains a pleasing level of tension by exploiting the tilt in global security that can be caused by a technical advantage, and provides the necessary pauses to explain the military and submarine jargon as necessary. Without any of it being profound, the film contains a good balance between character interaction, moments of sharp action, and underwater scenery (courtesy of cinematographer Jan de Bont) of subs manoeuvring around obstacles and hunting each other down.

A good half of the film takes place on-board the various submarines, and McTiernan avoids any traps of claustrophobia. The subs are portrayed as places of work, decision-making and action, and in which the trained men of both superpowers function efficiently and without complaint. But regardless of the film's fast pace, at 135 minutes The Hunt For Red October does sail on for longer than needed. This is a story that could have been told in two hours, and some of the padding is less than useless. Ryan, for example, witnesses a completely inconsequential crash on board an aircraft carrier that adds nothing to the film.

The plot is engaging without being too believable. The lure of a carefully planned defection is persuasive as Ramius' hidden agenda, and Sean Connery gives the role enough gravitas to propel the story forward. Nevertheless, there are quite a few holes in the logic of the script, and often the narrative drops down to a juvenile level where supposedly responsible adults play games, take risks, and trust hunches with ridiculously expensive machinery and nuclear weaponry at stake. The climax is particularly pretentious, with an on-board gunfight and a submarine torpedo duel proceeding simultaneously, finally registering as preposterous on the silly scale.

Alec Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Sam Neill and James Earl Jones provide strong support to Connery without ever fully rising above the fairly stock behaviour of tense military men. And in accordance with a super macho world, the film is completely devoid of any women characters of consequence.

Driven by near-viable technology and the deep-seated suspicions that fuelled a decades-long cold conflict, The Hunt For Red October is a worthwhile expedition.

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