Sunday 23 May 2021

Movie Review: Hunter Killer (2018)

A submarine action thriller, Hunter Killer is a slick throwback to the era of well-made, edge-of-your-seat military movies.

Two submarines, one Russian and one American, are attacked and sunk almost simultaneously in Arctic waters. The US Navy responds by deploying the USS Arkansas to the area, under the command of new and untested Commander Joe Glass (Gerard Butler). A Navy SEAL team led by Lieutenant Bill Beaman (Toby Stephens) is also dispatched to eavesdrop on Russia's Polyarno naval base, where an unusual meeting is scheduled between Russian President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko) and his Defence Minister Durov (Mikhail Gorevoy). 

The Arkansas has to evade an attack before rescuing Captain Andropov (Michael Nyqvist) of the sunken Russian sub. In the meantime war hawk Durov seizes power, holding Zakarin prisoner and manoeuvring for a confrontation with NATO naval forces. US Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff Charles Donnegan (Gary Oldman) immediately seeks to escalate, but Rear Admiral John Fisk (Common) and National Security Agency senior analyst Jayne Norquist (Linda Cardellini) improvise audacious missions for Glass and Beaman to try and avert a catastrophic war.

Recalling earlier eras from the 1990s (The Hunt For Red October and Crimson Tide) and 1950s (Run Silent, Run Deep and The Enemy Below), Hunter Killer rolls back the years and overachieves. Adapting a book by Don Keith and George Wallace, co-writers Arne Schmidt and Jamie Moss deliver a solid script for director Donovan Marsh to work with. Co-produced by star Gerard Butler, this is a well-crafted and coherent geopolitical thriller, generally plausible and grounded in real-world tensions and nationalistic agendas that can tip military posturing into shooting wars.

The special effects are immersive and enhance the familiar submarine drama beats of maintaining stealth, evading attacks, and hunting enemies. But the introduction of a parallel on-the-ground mission by the four-man SEAL team is a surprisingly effective enhancement. The gritty infiltration and surveillance objectives (which eventually expand into much more) provide relief from the naturally claustrophobic underwater environs.

With Butler in typically stoic form but also conveying the requisite smarts, Commander Joe Glass is introduced as an unconventional leader who earned his way to the top. Everyone else stays within narrow limits, making way for narrative spice in the form of earned trust between Glass and Andropov, natural rivals who will have to work together to try and pull the world back from the brink of disaster.

Given the ambitious scope, some clunky and cheesy moments do creep in, Gary Oldman particularly culpable with a dismissive display of hawkishness, and shortcuts in time and space help to keep the action compact. But the two hours of running time fly by with a series of well-executed and sequentially logical action highlights, before Hunter Killer sails its way to appetizing pivot points where hunting and killing are a valid response but thinking and trusting may be more judicious actions. And global calamities hang on the small margins where such under-pressure decisions are unavoidable.

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