Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Hunt for Red October

The Hunt for Red October (John McTiernan, 1989) We're grudging fans of Alec Baldwin in the BXC household, so every so often it's nice to go back and see "serious actor" Baldwin before he stretched his comic chops (an opportunity made common by this film's seeming omnipresence on cable channels these days). "The Hunt for Red October" was a dry-as-a-bone Tom Clancy novel based on a long-rumored incident involving a Russian nuclear submarine accident that Clancy turned into a cat-and-mouse game between a defecting Russian sub commander, and the American and Russian fleets in the North Atlantic. In the book, the action was sometimes intriguing, but the characters were non-existent, right down to the motivations of Captain Ramius, and the novel's Clancy-stand-in-hero Jack Ryan.

Producer 
Mace Neufeld (who must have had the patience of a saint given his long-term producing relationship with the late Clancy) turned it into a first-class film of intrigue top-heavy with male actors (by my count the only females are two stewardesses, Gates
Star Trek's "Dr. Crusher"—McFadden as Mrs. Ryan, and the kid who plays Ryan's daughter). So, here's the run-down: Baldwin, Sam Neill, James Earl Jones, Scott Glenn, Courtney B. Vance (making the most of a great part), Richard Jordan, Joss Ackland, Stellan Skarsgard, Peter Firth, Jeffrey Jones, Tim Curry, Fred Thompson, plus comedian Rick Ducommun and I swear I see Michael Biehn in the helicopter scene. And as the man everybody talks about, Sean Connery as the Scottishly-accented Lithuaninan Comdr. Ramius.*
It all works, as a spy/adventure story, as a detective story, a military exercise, and a submarine movie...and a character piece. Nobody comes out and says anything about their feelings, but actions define the characters, and with all the sub-time, there's a lot of celluloid of people standing around talking..and for the most part it's good functional talk that propels the movie along. Plus, you'll come away with a gloss of submarine tactics, of sonar capacities, the strategies of "arming" torpedoes, and a healthy respect for the difficulties of landing a jet-aircraft on a carrier during bad weather.** 
Respect also for Baldwin, who managed to make a human being out of the cypher of Jack Ryan through the force of his own personality--his Ryan is something of a geek, like Ben Affleck's later interpretation--and proved himself an adept for actor imitations (nice skewering of Thompson and Connery there, Alec) Plus, a crisp snap to the brim for suggesting and making good on the overhead shot of Ryan cutting his tether from a helicopter to gain entry to an American sub during a violent storm, and looking UP at the camera to make sure we all know it's actually him (pre-CGI) doing the stunt.
There was minimal CGI involved—and in fact, due to budget constraints, the filming of the underwater scenes were as low-tech as you could get—suspended model shots of subs were puppeteered through underwater landscapes filmed in a dry warehouse filled with smoke. Crude particle and wave generation was all that was needed to complete the image. But it's indicative of the back-to-basics approach to The Hunt for Red October--an old-fashioned sea-hunt that satisfies.




* The script, by Donald E. Stewart and Larry Ferguson (who also wrote himself a good part in it) is augmented by dialog commissioned by Connery from one of his favorite writers at the time, John Milius, his director in The Wind and the Lion, and Milius provided him some lovely chewable dialog throughout the thing, as in...this scene

** But my favorite moment in the movie is a brilliant stroke--the smooth transition in dialog from Russian to English as Firth's Political Officer reads a passage from a bible owned by Ramius' late wife: the camera moves in on Firth reading the passage--Revelation 16:15-17--(in Russian) and stops on one commonly-pronounced word--"Armageddon"--and when the camera begins to pull back, he continues...in English. It's a neat trick, perfectly strategized and played...like so much of the movie.



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