The latest mid-budget Gerard Butler vehicle might thrill those who clamor for the return of the 90s submarine thriller, but doesn't offer much else.
While the film and television industry is deep in the throes of nostalgia, it’s strange to see the submarine thriller – one of the 90s more specific subgenres – make an attempted comeback. The Hunt for Red October and Das Boot showed what could be done in a claustrophobic setting surrounded by a feeling of impossible escape, the genre didn’t really go anywhere beyond those two films. After the generally fine U-571 and the overall flop of K-19: The Widowmaker, the genre sunk to the ocean floor, never to be seen again- until now. Rising from the depths comes Hunter Killer, and much like a sub lost at sea since the late ‘90s it conjures up images we thought we’d left behind.
Following the destruction of a pair of Russian and American subs in the Barents Sea, Captain Joe Glass (Gerard Butler) is assigned to the USS Arkansas, a Hunter-Killer class submarine, to investigate what happened. Upon arriving, they are attacked by a Russian sub and uncover an on-going coup in the Russian government. This Cold War inspired plot isn’t all we follow though. On land, a team of special forces (led by Toby Stephens) have been tasked with also investigating what is happening. Meanwhile, back in Washington DC, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (a whole five minutes of Gary Oldman), RA John Fisk (Common), and NSA Agent Jayne Norquist (Linda Cardellini) collectively try and figure out what’s happening.
In more deft hands, these divulging plot lines might have worked, but most of the film feels scattershot, wandering around blindly like a sub without sonar. The script itself (penned by Arne L. Schmidt and Jamie Moss, who adapt the novel Firing Point by George Wallace) feels less like a cohesive story and more like a combination of pitches that executives forgot they bought. The story feels equal parts ‘90s cold war drama, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and Behind Enemy Lines 4: Now It’s Russia.
One of the odd side effects of so many competing plots is that the movie absolutely avoids any foreshadowing at all. It is implied that Captain Glass was in an extremely bad sub wreck at some point and that it still haunts him. When things start to get back though, none of that past comes back. One of the tough on-land army dudes looks longingly at a picture of the nameless woman he’s dating before jumping into enemy territory; she is never mentioned again. The same army dude fails a training session when he doesn’t run into his sniper position quickly enough; behind enemy lines, he’s shot in the leg. Are we going to see him bravely run into position to save his team? No. No he’s already in position when the time comes. This constant mishandling of foreshadowing takes away the film’s tension – ostensibly the most intriguing part of a sub drama. But the second that foreshadowing is abandoned, it becomes obvious that everyone is going to succeed. Hunter Killer is so bereft of risk that it doesn’t even feel like it has a third act.
All of this does no favors for the actors at all. Not a single character is given more than a two-dimensional personality and direction more beyond the general army man toy. No one is phoning in their performance, mind you, but beyond the occasional screaming match that comes out of nowhere, the characters are given nothing unique to mold into a personality. Most disappointing are the interactions between Common and Cardellini: if the movie had just focused on the two of them – a low ranking General and a high-ranking NSA agent trying to push world away from World War III – it really feels like the two would have played off each other fantastically. Instead, we go small glimpses of chemistry followed by CGI oceans and stock footage of the US Navy.
Strangely befitting the film’s 90s throwback aesthetic, the geopolitics of this world are not linked to ours at all. In this dimension, Russia’s president is a hunky, pragmatic fellow with, what seems to be, a complete disinterest in causing world turmoil. The American president is a woman (twist!) who just happens to bear enough of a resemblance to Hillary Clinton for it to feel like a notable choice. This might work if the film had been deeply engaging from the start, but instead it feels like peeping into a relatively boring alternate dimension.
In the end, Hunter Killer is just base-level fine, a rote submarine thriller no one asked for and no one really wanted. Between Butler sleepwalking adequately through his now-patented grisly action hero, and Oldman committing like he does to every single project, great or small, the actors do their best to elevate the boilerplate material. Donovan Marsh’s directing is perfectly cromulent, but most of his best shots are constantly ruined by pointless CGI. If you really, really need your fix for cold war submarine nostalgia, you’re better off just popping in a VHS of Hunt for Red October and let the sonorous waves of Sean Connery’s convincing Russian accent wash over you.
Hunter Killer raises periscope in theaters Friday, October 26th.