If the country needs saving from a foreign terrorist threat, Scottish actor Gerard Butler is our guy. Talk about outsourcing. The Olympus Has Fallen star has found himself a comfortable niche as America’s hoo-rah hero in a bunch of politically-charged action flicks, but his latest, the long-developing submarine thriller Hunter Killer, is a little bit different. It follows in the tradition of The Hunt for Red October, Crimson Tide, and others, and while it doesn’t compare favorably to those deep sea classics, Hunter Killer‘s got an old fashioned aesthetic that should please fans of Tom Clancy-esque action.
Given the circus-like atmosphere of our current foreign policy, in particular when it comes to Russia, a film like Hunter Killer has to come up with a story crazy enough to beat what we see on a daily basis. Like any good geo-political thriller, the potential stakes are World War III if everything goes to shit, and it looks like a certainty after a Russian sub explodes beneath the Arctic Circle while being shadowed by an American vessel. It isn’t long before our sub is also taken out, and the Pentagon, led by snarling Admiral Charles Donnegan (Gary Oldman, cashing it in) and even-keeled Rear Admiral John Fisk (Common, half asleep), the decision is made to send in rule breaking hunter killer Joe Glass (Butler), to investigate. He’s the classic Butler sensitive badass with a maverick streak; Glass is first introduced to us while he’s out in the wild hunting a buck (tough!!), but he refuses to shoot when he’s got the kill shot (heart of gold!!), and he’s taken aback (humble!!) when ordered to lead a crew down to check out the wreckage.
Of the many suited-up characters populating Hunter Killer, Glass is by far the most interesting although the bar is set pretty low. Most of the ship’s crew consists of anonymous sailors with few lines, other than the token combative first mate, and don’t even bother looking for a female among them. Okay, there might be one. No, you’ll have to turn to Linda Cardellini (in her 100th role this year I think) as NSA agent Jayne Norquist to get the female perspective on all this masculine war-making, but all she really has to add are stern reminders to the boys that she wields some apparent authority. Glass at least comes off like a real leader of men, a quick decision maker, and more than capable at just winging it when need be. When his investigation leads them right into another Russian sub’s trap, exposing a much broader conflict than anyone suspected, he wins over a Russian captain (Michael Nyqvist in one of his final roles) by drawing on their shared experiences beneath the sea. Foreign relations for the win!! Real-world politics are out the window, and despite the title it takes more than just a supply of nuclear torpedoes to end a conflict, although they do help.
In the works practically since the day the novel hit shelves, Hunter Killer went through a long development process that saw multiple directors come and go. Ultimately they settled on newcomer Donovan Marsh, who creates thick tension in the underwater sequences. A great deal of time and expense clearly went into recreating every detail with modern accuracy. Current subs are more wide open and less claustrophobic than the Das Boot tin cans we’re accustomed to seeing on screen, so Marsh makes up the difference by filling each scene with as many officers as possible, recreating the same tense atmosphere. Pretty much everything on the water works, and Marsh crafts some exciting submarine shootouts. What doesn’t work is when the action moves to land, where a crack team of personality-deprived marines sneak into Russia behind enemy lines. There’s nothing memorable about these sequences and we keep wishing Marsh would put us back inside one of those tin cans as soon as possible. The further Hunter Killer goes beneath the surface, the better off it is.