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One side-effect of the current political situation is that films like Hunter Killer are stuck in that 1990s post-Cold War warm glow where protagonists and presidents are decent people who just happen to have been born on different sides of an arbitrary border. While their real life equivalents are now so crazy, if a director put them on the big screen they’d be accused of jumping the shark.
The Russian president in Hunter Killer, while apparently Putin-esque in his determination to re-arm his vast country, seems rather mild-mannered. I wasn’t surprised his Minister of Defence, Admiral Durov, staged a coup; I’d probably have done the same.
Likewise the US president is a nice woman with a blonde bob who agrees with both her Rear Admiral John Fisk (Common) and her Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Charles Donnegan (Gary Oldman), even though they have opposing views on what to do.
Thank goodness Captain Joe Glass (Gerard Butler), in his Hunter Killer class submarine the USS Arkansas, pretty much does what he likes, which makes this movie thrilling, exciting and a whole lot of fun (until the last quarter when it falls apart).
I was so involved I even used the little buttons to tip my cinema seat back as Glass took the Arkansas underwater.
The only thing that made my heart sink faster and deeper than Glass’s sub was remembering it was one of Michael Nyqvist’s last films before he died last year. He adds a sheen of class as the grizzled and experienced Russian submarine commander Captain Andropov who ends up on the Arkansas, saying a huge amount without speaking very much.
Butler’s company produced the movie, which may be why we first see Glass on a snowy Scottish hillside, about to shoot a stag before changing his mind at the last minute. A hunter, but when it comes down to it, maybe not a killer. It’s a daft scene but it also fits – and shows us that Glass is a loner and not remotely clubbable, while his crew are hitting the town’s only two pubs.
But with the USS Tampa Bay missing in the Barents Sea, near where the Russian fleet has been staging war games, Arkansas – at Faslane while its crew is on shore leave – is the nearest submarine; and it’s sent north to find out the fate of the lost sub.
Glass is an experienced submariner but an untested captain, with a crew who don’t know him, but whose lives depend on his ability for critical thinking under pressure.
In Washington, the old school Donnegan is pushing for a response: “when someone makes a move on a chessboard you respond” he tells President Dover (Caroline Goodall), while Fisk is the one to suggest the bold and ballsy plan that they rescue Russia’s President Zakarin. (Zakarin is, as someone points out, bad but not as bad as Admiral Durov. One’s enemy’s enemy is one’s friend, for now at least.)
Meanwhile a team of four Navy SEALs parachutes into Russian territory to check out Polyarny, a naval base in the Murmansk Fjord near where Tampa Bay disappeared. (Despite this being billed as a Butler/Oldman film there’s a lot about these black ops military men, and less about Washington suits and Washington uniforms arguing, and the film is better for it. They’re a tight-knit group, they have cool tech, and they’re also hot. Especially the one with the beard who looks like Christian Bale.)
Glass and the soldiers have to pull out Zakarin and ensure that what happens in Polyarny stays in Polyarny, rather than causing a nuclear conflagration. And what’s happening is that coup, staged by Admiral Durov, who wants to lure in the Americans while making it look like the US is the aggressor.
Captain Glass finds the Tampa Bay, torpedoed and now a watery tomb. Unexpectedly he also finds a devastated Russian submarine, another tomb but not caused by American firepower. “Nobody’s following the playbook”, Glass tells his crew as realisation dawns on him that something doesn’t add up.
Hunter Killer itself does indeed follow the East-West Underwater Playbook but there are some highly enjoyable touches. It’s beautifully shot by cinematographer Tom Marais. I loved the underwater icebergs like an inverted snowy mountain range as the Tampa Bay glides slowly through the freezing sea; the high overhead shots of the worker ant-like soldiers clambering in a line over a field of boulders; and the bullets diving through the fjord. The active soldiers out in the open balance the enervating claustrophobia underwater.
I’ll also admit to a soft spot for Oleg (Yuri Kolokolnikov), Zakarin’s loyal bodyguard whose fuck-you attitude means he’s the recipient of this review’s “why can’t we have a spin-off with this minor yet intriguing character” award.
Nyqvist is excellent as usual, and I enjoyed Linda Cardellini’s turn as the Washington-based Jayne Norquist, who along with Fisk are the doves to Donnegan’s hawk.
And what of Butler? He can play these kinds of men in his sleep now, and I’m not implying that he actually was asleep. I did like Glass’s half-suppressed indecision when he has to make that first big call; later he’s committed, firm in the face of bafflement and anger from his crew.
In fact Glass is enjoyably maverick whenever he’s not making another of those movie speeches no one ever makes in real life, of which there are a few. (To be fair, the Playbook states that no untested captain should go to work without a couple of worthy sermons up his sleeve plus the traditional “we’re no different, you and I” chat with an opponent.)
The lone woman in the Arkansas crew seems to be solely tasked with looking anxious when the camera pans around to her chair. The language dilemma hasn’t been resolved either. Sometimes the Russians speak in accented English, sometimes in Russian. Sometimes in Russian and English. And sometimes in hand signals. Though that’s nothing compared to Glass, who by the closing minutes appears to have developed the power of telepathy.
Despite these clunkers, Hunter Killer is mostly an enjoyable blast, another of those films I think I’m following really well until I try to recap later and can’t quite remember what was happening when.
Unfortunately the last 25 minutes are wasted – despite the action ramping up, it’s less interesting than the previous hour and a half. Though don’t walk out early as then you’ll never know if Glass does accidentally cause WW3. If you’ve never read the Playbook, anyway.
Watch the Hunter Killer trailer here: