Synopsis – An untested American submarine captain teams with U.S. Navy Seals to rescue the Russian president, who has been kidnapped by a rogue general.
My Take – For years films based on the U.S. military have been about triumphant stories focused on hardships undertaken by the good men and women, who are out there to bring the good fight to the enemy, all on the basis of freedom which the U.S.A always supposedly stands for. There is no denying that the audience adores such films, so do the critics (mostly). While over the past two decades, war films based on the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan have come plenty, with their own tendency to become preachy and overbearing at times, its surprisingly been a while since we had a film set below the ocean’s surface, filled with just enough brooding and sonar pings, which the crew stares at from a glowing control panel, to gobble up.
While the 80s and 90s had films such Das Boot, Crimson Tide and The Hunt for Red October to lead the barring, underwhelming films like K–19: The Widowmaker and Black Sea pretty much ended the trend. And if you thought this Donovan Marsh directed film would bring back those glory days, well you are likely to be disappointed. Mainly as this Gerard Butler led and produced film submarine film is simply bombastic, garish and ridden with clichés, along with being filled with preposterous politics and diplomacy, while containing a frenetic video-game energy. And it is so often so unintentionally silly that, yes, it’s actually kind of a fun watch. The massive problem with a lot of military films is that they try to take themselves way too seriously.
It’s not easy to find a military film that knows it’s just here for some quick entertainment and treats itself that way, thankfully this film doesn’t have that problem. Based on the an actual military thriller novel, Firing Point, from George Wallace, a retired Navy submarine commander, and author Don Keith, this film is more of a fast-moving action flick with over-the-top shootouts on land, sea, and at the bottom of the ocean that’ll leave you cringing, laughing, but nonetheless very entertained.
The story follows Joe Glass (Gerard Butler), a salt-of-the-sea type of submarine captain who despite never attending the Naval Academy at Annapolis rose from the ranks. When a Russian sub sinks under mysterious circumstances, and an American sub, the USS Tampa Bay, is left lurking in its wake after being torpedoed a few minutes later, the Pentagon control head Rear Admiral Fisk (Common) suggests to Admiral Donnegan (Gary Oldman), the chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff, to promote Glass as the newest skipper of the hunter killer, USS Arkansas, and send them down to investigate. While Glass raises suspicions surrounding the scenario of the Russian submarine’s sinking, he is surprised to discover survivors in the wreckage of the sunken Russian sub, in the form of two sailors and their skipper, Captain Andropov (Michael Nyqvist).
Meanwhile at the pentagon, worried that the Russians are planning some form of military attack, Fisk and Jayne Norquist (Linda Cardellini), National Security Agency senior analyst, convince the president to send a ground U.S. Navy SEAL team led by Lieutenant Bill Beaman (Toby Stephens) to discreetly observe the Russian naval base. What they are surprised to witness is that a political coup led by Admiral Durov (Mikhail Gorevoy), the Russian Minister of Defense, has taken place and has managed to take President Zakarin (Alexander Dianchenko) hostage. As Durov begins to abuse his power by showing their military power to the world especially the U.S, Beaman and his team are ordered to rescue the president by all means possible, while Glass must work with Andropov to put an end to Durov’s madness by indulging him in a deadly chessboard game of cat and mouse to avert global war.
While the premise of the film is undeniably run-of-the-mill, it takes a belt-and-suspenders-and-more-suspenders approach to the situation. While the film of course has its faults, it’s certainly a fun watch if you use the suspension of disbelief. Think of it as Olympus Has Fallen, but on a submarine. Both star Butler saving presidents from doomsday plots, use non-stop action to drive the film forward, and they avoid long pauses and building up tension like the plague. While not particularly surprising in its twists, the film moves with a tense elegance that maintains its taut dramatic tension throughout.
However, the stereotype is turned on its head with the US making the unprecedented move of actually helping out a country with which they have a frosty relationship. Given real life political events with Russia in recent months, the film couldn’t be more aptly timed and it’s interesting to watch how the line between fact and fiction draws close together.
Here, the film takes a 360-degree view of American-Russian brinkmanship, ranging from crews in nuclear subs, black ops squads and Pentagon bigwigs coordinating tactics. Mistrust and egotism are rampant, with both sides posturing, subverting command, set to push the envelope off the edge of the table and into a World War III inferno. The suspense isn’t as thick and enveloping as it might be, and as we would prefer, but it’s sufficient enough to keep us entertained and aware of our own rooting interest, and more than enough to keep itself from sinking. The film also does a great job of displaying submarine life accurately by using actual submariner slang and recreating a multi-leveled yet claustrophobic set. One scene that was particularly cool was when the submarine was descending and they all stood still and straight as the entire sub tilted forward.
These little touches to the film adds a lot of believability. Another excellent sequence came in the form of the scene when USS Arkansas, skirts the ocean floor to sneak into mine-filled waters off the Russian coast. But surprisingly despite all the action on display are the encounters between Glass and Andropov that provide the most fascinating moments here. The two men are both powerful in their roles as leaders yet polar opposites in their outlook on the world. Glass tells the Russian commander: ‘It’s about the future’ and that they are ‘brothers’ not enemies. Yet skeptical about the idea of Russia and the US being allies, Andropov dead-pan tells him to ‘fuck off’ at first. But their respect as sailors and as servicemen transcends their views of being enemies, allows them to cooperate for a common cause. Through navigating difficult underwater terrain and surviving against a barrage of torpedoes and missiles. They evade detection and survive through expertly timed maneuvers and a lot of close calls.
Even though the plot and the international politics leave a lot to be desired, they do end up manufacturing a silly but very effective standoff by the end, all thanks to the film’s steady stream of high-powered action sequences that conjure a wow factor that pushes the film beyond that realm. Though this is the first Hollywood film from South African director Donovan Marsh, he does cook up some captivating action set pieces, like navigating a submarine through a fjord of mines, or even just an old-fashioned, ridiculously over-the-top shootout, which may have you laughing, rolling your eyes or even cheering. Seriously, the action scenes alone are worth the price of admission. I’m not sure watching torpedoes and missiles being fired would have the same impact on just a regular television. On the big screen, the explosions in the film feel like they’re running through you.
Gerard Butler, who also produced, has been cast wisely here, and he seems within his comfort zone this time around, something that hasn’t been the case in a number of his recent starring vehicles (like God of Egypt). Gary Oldman is unfortunately used sparingly here considering he has top-billing, but when he does appear, he is of course a show-stealer. In one of his last roles, the late Michael Nyqvist chews up every scene he is in. Common don’t have much to do either other than stand and state the obvious in every scene. The often-underrated Linda Cardellini does well in her role and helps in balancing up the male testosterone. In supporting turns, Zane Holtz, Toby Stephens, Gabriel Chavarria, Michael Trucco, Mikhail Gorevoy and Alexander Dianchenko are also good. On the whole, ‘Hunter Killer’ is an action-packed thriller which despite being cliché ridden manages to be surprisingly fun.
Directed – Donovan Marsh
Rated – R
Run Time – 122 minutes