Set during the mid-1980s and based on Tom Clancy's debut novel, The Hunt for Red October is the kind of action thriller that is rarely made today-one that emphasizes intellect, logic, intuition, and political maneuvering over might and brawn, which is somewhat ironic given that it was directed by John McTiernan, whose previous two films were Predator (1987) and Die Hard (1988), two uber-macho red-meat examples of the pure action film that hit its zenith in the latters years of the Reagan era. However, despite a third act gun battle and some tense underwater battles between rival submarines, McTiernan keeps much of the conventional action at a low simmer, always threatening to boil over if cooler heads fail to prevail.
In his first leading role, Alec Baldwin plays Jack Ryan, a former Marine-turned-history professor and CIA analyst who is brought in by Admiral Greer (James Earl Jones), the CIA naval operations chief, to study images procured by British intelligence of a new Soviet ballistic submarine. Ryan determines that the sub, named the "Red October," is equipped with a special silent propulsion system that makes it virtually undetectable. Thus, the Red October is a particularly threatening weapon of potential mass destruction, made all the more so because its captain, Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), is either trying to defect to the United States or is headed there in a fit of insanity to launch missiles at the American coastline. Ryan, who has studied Ramius from afar for years, believes it is the former, but the rest of the Navy, including Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn), the captain of the U.S. submarine trailing the October, fears that it is the latter, especially after the Soviet ambassador says as much. Ryan believes it is just a ploy by the Soviets to get their adversaries to help them sink the Red October to keep it from falling into U.S. hands.
Thus, much of the film, which was admirably adapted from Clancy's lengthy, techno-jargon-heavy novel by Larry Ferguson (Beverly Hills Cop II, The Presidio) and Donald Stewart (Missing), is essentially a chess match played hundreds of feet under the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, as the Red October makes its way toward North America with a U.S. sub and another Soviet sub in pursuit. Ramius's intentions are left vague, as he is clearly capable of immense violence (watch as he snaps the neck of the nosy political officer stationed on his sub), but because he is played with such upright intensity by Connery (a recent Oscar winner for his role in Brian De Palma's The Untouchables), it is hard to imagine that he is doing anything other than the "right" thing. Connery's presence is something of a no-brainer, but the casting of Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan is a bit dicey, especially since Baldwin had never anchored a film before or played any kind of hero. He is good at conveying Ryan's intense intelligence and sense of conviction, but at other times he feels oddly misplaced. One can imagine that McTiernan, having so successfully cast Bruce Willis against the grain as a gritty, wise-cracking action hero in Die Hard, felt he could make anyone work in the role, and Baldwin almost does (not surprisingly, though, he never returned to the role he originated, as Jack Ryan has been played in subsequent films by Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Chris Pine and by John Krasinski in the popular Amazon series).
For his part, McTiernan steers his cinematic ship well, emphasizing the claustrophobic tensions inside the various submarines where most of the action transpires with his by-then familiar use of rack focus, intensely shallow depth of field, and refracting lights. Working again with cinematographer Jan De Bont, who had also shot Die Hard, McTiernan gives The Hunt for Red October a unique visual polish that, like the films noir of old, is long on compositional tension and short on outright violence. There are a few notable action sequences, including a daring attempt to lower Ryan onto a submarine from a helicopter in a driving storm and a tricky game of cat and mouse played by the three subs and several torpedoes, but where Red October really excels is in making us feel the constant heat of threat-that at any moment the wrong decision could unleash utter destruction.
Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3)
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