Review of the Week–The Hunt for Red October

Greetings everyone, and happy New Year to you all! For my first review of 2018, I figured I’d fall back on an old favorite that was outside the realm of sci-fi that I seem to have been sticking to for the past few weeks. How about a war movie? Well, sort of.

Before you ask, yes, The Hunt for Red October is based on the Tom Clancy novel of the same name, and I can’t really get into that many comparisons because I can’t claim to have ever read the book version. I’ve never been a huge fan of Clancy books, but movies are another story, as all the films I’ve seen based on his work are pretty darn good. Red October, however, is easily my favorite given the novelty of its focus on submarine warfare, which I find fascinating, and its just all-around greatness as an action movie.

The movie takes place in 1984, with Cold War tensions still running high between the Soviet Union and the United States. Russia launches a new submarine called Red October, a massive battleship with a new silent engine that makes it virtually invisible to tracking systems. Armed with this new weapon, Sean Connery’s Captain Marko Ramius stages a mutiny aboard as he destroys his original orders and seizes control, setting a course for the U.S. mainland. The governments of Russia and the U.S. are terrified at the prospect of a mad, renegade sub captain launching a nuclear strike and take all available measures to hunt down Ramius and sink his ship. But a CIA analyst named Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) comes up with a different theory: having studied Ramius for years and having revealed the existence of the silent drive in the first place, he believes Ramius is trying to steal the sub and defect to the United States. As such, the race is on between the three sides to find out what Ramius’ intentions actually are and either stop him or save him from being destroyed with an advantage that could change the balance of power in the world.

First of all, I have to seriously praise this movie for the awesome casting choices. Alec Baldwin is perfect as Jack Ryan because he has just enough edge to make you believe he can be an action hero without actually looking like or being one. He may have military training, but as he says several times, he’s not a field agent and mostly works in research behind a desk. This classic, while somewhat tired, trope of the desk jockey rising to the occasion to save the day is one that never really gets old for me, and definitely works quite well in this case with all the explanation of Ryan’s background trauma. In addition, Sean Connery is strong as always in his role as Captain Ramius, even if his Russian is terrible because it’s tinged with that Scottish accent. He’s completely confident, cool, and calm, and is so competent that he never feels like explaining himself to anyone, giving his character a very ambiguous feeling. You’re never quite sure if he’s a good guy or a bad guy up until the very end, even though you do kind of want him to survive regardless since he’s so interesting.

I can’t really give writing credit to anyone responsible for the movie, seeing as this was a book first, but Red October‘s story is pretty solid all around. I even appreciate how at first they used subtitles for the Russian dialogue before eventually transitioning into English. Too often we see people playing characters of other nationalities in movies and just assuming everyone speaks English all the time, everywhere. I’ll be the first person to admit that I hate subtitles and having to read my movies, but the transition was handled very well and it shows that the producers at least tried to make it feel authentic. Otherwise, the plot of the film is pretty sound all around, with one notable exception: when Ramius kills his political officer and burns his orders to start his defection plot, he immediately calls the ship’s doctor (Tim Curry!) to his cabin to investigate. What, you’re telling me that when the doctor got there five minutes later and there was a smoldering pile of ash on the table, he didn’t think that was a little weird? And also, I feel like any doctor worth his salt would have been able to figure out in about three seconds that the guy didn’t actually die by slipping on tea and hitting his head. I mean, come on.

That tiny quibble aside, the construction of the story in Red October is just very, very strong. I love the little easter eggs the filmmakers threw in, such as introducing us oh so briefly to the cook’s assistant who would eventually sabotage the ship during the final battle. You thought he was just some random guy? No way. Everything in this movie is done deliberately and with the end goal in mind, from the DSRV plot point to the sabotage aboard the sub, and even Ryan’s knowledge of Ramius’ tactics. It’s rare that you find such a well-constructed story, in my opinion.

While the stakes are high in this movie, it’s also nice that Red October doesn’t get too dark and doesn’t take itself as seriously as some other war movies I could name. It can work at times, but also doesn’t end up well for some (cough cough Dunkirk cough). There’s enough humor, both in situation and dialogue, throughout the film that it does enough to lighten the mood of what could potentially be a pretty gloomy and dark story. Of course there’s also tragedy, mostly in the form of the death of Sam Neil’s character, Ramius’s first officer and best friend. I somehow can’t help but think that maybe if Connery had died and Neil had lived, maybe this would have provided a bigger emotional gut-punch to really drive the ending home. It’s nothing big, but it’s worth considering. Red October also delivers on philosophical themes, from the end of the world to the futility of war and the importance of service and sacrifice. Character beats are in plentiful supply as well, both for the major and minor players, as each person in the cast pretty much gets their own moment to shine and has at least some kind of backstory figured out for them. The best, of course, are saved for the main characters, as Ramius and Ryan’s backgrounds are never just laid out for the audience, but are organically woven into the story throughout its run.

My Rating: 8/10

The Hunt for Red October is definitely a Tom Clancy movie in that it’s a political and war-based thriller with equal parts action and drama, and focuses on the military. As such, I know it won’t be for everyone, and it’s certainly not perfect. But it’s still grade-A entertainment in my opinion, and is a fun yet understated action film that I can watch over and over and over again. It may not be the greatest movie of all time, but it’s certainly one that can stand time’s test and will still be enjoyable for years to come.


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