This otherwise clumsy submarine picture nevertheless asks an important question: How does one make a military action picture in the age of Trump? Not that it would be difficult to feed raw meat to his faction, but assuming studios want as many people as possible to come to a general entertainment feature, how does a filmmaker concoct such a flick that won't instantly disaffect the other side?
In this case, director Donovan Marsh, working from a script by Arne Schmidt and Jamie Moss, comes up with one type of solution: Hedge your bets. On the one hand, the film exalts in exactly the kind of military techno-porn the armed forces like to use for their own TV commercials, filling the screen with high-tech gizmos utilized by hard-bitten special ops soldiers who respond to every explosive situation with honor and efficiency; on the other, you populate the upper reaches of government with a female president (Caroline Goodall), a blond Hillary Clinton-type, whose pragmatism and ability to listen to her advisers prevents her from acting rashly, and a pair of submarine commanders, one American (Gerard Butler) and one Russian (the late Michael Nyqvist, in one of his last roles), whose ability to work together helps prevent a devastating war.
75 Cast: Gerard Butler, Gary Oldman, Linda Cardellini, Common, Ilia Volok, Carter MacIntyre, Will Attenborough, Toby Stephens, Sarah Middleton, Caroline Goodall
Director: Donovan Marsh
Rating: R, for violence and some language
Runnung time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Of course, it being a standard studio action flick, certain conventions are still in place, including a borderline ridiculous plot, dramatic timing that's too precious by half, and, sadly, some truly underwhelming CGI effects.
Here's the setup, in a nutshell: A rogue Russian defense minister, Adm. Durov (Michael Gor), stages a coup, capturing Russian President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko) and setting the stage for a major naval skirmish with the Americans in an attempt to quickly consolidate his power. Standing in the way of his nefarious plans is a "hunter killer" submarine, helmed by Capt. Joe Glass (Butler; and yes, "Joe Glass" is pretty close to Jan Brady's infamous appellation for her fictional boyfriend), whose crew is hastily scrambled together; and a small, special ops team, lead by Capt. Beaman (Toby Stephens), whose mission is to, in effect, kidnap the president from where he is being held under guard and whisk him to the safety of the American submarine.
As the makeshift plan comes together, the military brass at the Pentagon, including Adm. Fisk (Common), Agent Norquist (Linda Cardellini), an NSA operative, and the Minister of the Joint Chiefs Donnegan (Gary Oldman), sweat the lack of regular communication and rage back and forth with each other about the efficacy of a plan that doesn't rely on immediate and total retaliation to the Russians' provocation.
Despite its considerable shortfalls -- including a leaden script ("We're not enemies, we're brothers"); seriously questionable narrative logic; an unfortunate penchant for numerous character cheats; and, of course, Gerard Butler -- Donovan keeps things moving at a brisk pace, setting up effectively tense scenes on land and deep under the surface. What's the point, after all, of having a submarine picture if you don't have scenes with the crew having to remain stock-silent as a deadly destroyer cruises just over their heads, many fathoms up, or someone exclaiming "Any deeper and we'll get crushed like a beer can!" What's more, it must be said, the film offers reasonably decent payoffs to its anxiety provoking ways, which keeps it just this side of entertaining.
Naturally, there is the nervous, doubting XO (Carter MacIntyre), who plays Piglet to Butler's taciturn Pooh bear, announcing hysteric exclamations ("This is outrageous!" or "You'll be court-martialed for this!") as a means of informing the audience just what's at stake at various key passages. This goes along with the script's unfortunate tendency to reduce characters to a single device: We are shown how fair-minded and thoughtful Capt. Glass is when we first meet him because he lays off shooting a deer (naturally with an arrow, because he's so hands-on) when he realizes the deer's mate and their kids are immediately behind his prey; while Capt. Beamon is hardest on the newest recruit to his team (Ryan McPartlin), a young sniper, who proves to be the most brave and effective of everyone on the squad.
Much is also made of Capt. Glass' blue-collar roots: He's not an Annapolis-trained seaman, he informs the crew upon his arrival, he came up from the enlisted ranks like all the other grunts ("I am you," he gravely intones). Somehow, this allows him to be a highly decorated commander and a rogue follow-his-gut type, who takes unbelievable risks every step of the way (hence, his terrified XO, calling in the wilderness for sanity), only to have all of them pay off in decidedly advantageous -- if often logic-defying -- ways.
Along the way, there is a fair amount of blood spilled and epithets tossed out, a standard macho affair, but the film's message, such as it is, remains a good deal more centrist, with cool heads prevailing, and sailors on both sides of the fence defying direct orders to preserve peace. It's more than a bit of a mixed message, to be sure, but you can at least appreciate the delicate depths the studio has taken to try and appease both sides. In the era of rabid, Trump-led tribalism, that's some kind of achievement, anyway.
MovieStyle on 10/26/2018
Print Headline: Hunter Killer