Thursday, December 6, 2018

A Dumb Fun Sub Movie Is Better Than None: Hunter Killer

Gerard Butler (left) in Hunter Killer.

If you hadn’t already guessed from the film’s name and poster typeface, Hunter Killer is a retro action B-movie in the techno-fetishistic style of a Tom Clancy adaptation. Joe Glass (Gerard Butler) ascends from the rank and file to captain his first submarine on a mission to investigate a missing American sub, which they find sunk alongside a Russian sub. Unable to contact Russian President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko), the U.S. sends out a Navy SEAL recon team, which discovers that Zakarin is being held captive at a Russian naval base in a coup led by war-hungry Defense Minister Durov (Mikhail Gorevoy). Naturally, the sub and the SEALs are brought together to form a mission to extract Zakarin. Needless to say, they succeed by a hair.

There are numerous resemblances to The Hunt for Red October (1990): some crew are rescued from the downed Russian sub, whose captain (the late Michael Nyqvist) proves indispensable for navigating the U.S. sub into the Russian naval base, and for getting it out in one piece; a stateside bureaucratic argument over how to deal with the coup results in both prepping for war and greenlighting the maverick rescue op, which is also headed by a black admiral (here played by Common); there’s a traitor in the Russian crew, though here it’s only a minor plot point; and, heck, the Russians even speak English amongst themselves.

That’s where the similarities end. The strategic aspect of the plot of Hunter Killer lacks the feeling of high-stakes tensiondespite the possibility of igniting World War III – nor are the characters fleshed out to any degree. The deepest the characterization goes is to make each person stake out a recognizable position, but we get nothing in the way of motivation, or personal style, or even any hint of individualizing idiosyncrasy that really sticks in the mind. Don’t think for a second that I don’t recognize Hunter Killer for the nearly uninterrupted series of clich├ęs that it is. Yet if you can look past the weak but functional script by Arne Schmidt and Jamie Moss, it can be quite engaging.

Most of the entertainment value is the result of a strong production and crew. Directed by Donovan Marsh, this is Gerard Butler’s passion project, in pre-production since 2011, and it shows. The editing by Michael J. Duthie is clean and unobtrusive. The U.S. Navy-approved production design (Jon Henson, James H. Spencer) is cinematically authentic. And Tom Marais’s camerawork is dynamic and coherent, eschewing the regrettably ubiquitous use of shaky camerawork in contemporary action films and opting instead for static shots when at rest, arc shots when in motion, and drone shots for scale and grandeur.

Even the acting is better than expected, featuring not only Butler (who once upon a time, it is said, displayed some acting range) but also Common, Gary Oldman as the splenetic Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Linda Cardellini in the underwritten role of NSA analyst, and Nyqvist as Captain Andropov of the downed Russian sub, oozing gravitas and moral conflict. Unfortunately, the acting in the on-land part of the mission is blander; the SEALs are almost literally interchangeable (the only identifiable one is wounded greenhorn sniper Martinelli, played by Zane Holtz), and I only knew which one the Russian president was because he’s the only worried person in civvies.

Overall, Hunter Killer is a smooth, coherent, exciting, and improbable action film that features scenes set in a submarine. It doesn’t break new ground, but it delivers the expected with competence, which is more than can be said of many these days. One thing in particular that does stand out, and is a product of its era, is the sub’s on-board use of digital interface technology. It should be no surprise that the sea charts are now digital; what’s more surprising is that the sonar soundscape is rendered visually as well. And the ending of Red October would never pass muster today, as the torpedoes in the film come equipped with remote control capability, also aided by visualization technology. No idea if all this tech is real or was thought up merely for cinematic effect, but the visual association of digital technology with bugs and crashes kept me waiting for a nonexistent subplot involving malfunctioning and/or hacked systems that forces everyone to fall back on more traditional methods of submarining. Now that would’ve been innovative. Instead, we get the usual fire and flooding and being pinned down by a dropped torpedo. That, and the rest of the film, is just fine by me.

CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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