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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Director Report Card: John McTiernan (1990)

4. The Hunt for Red October

When Tom Clancy died in 2013, he was a brand name. The novelist had lent his name to video games, TV shows, board games, movies, and other books he didn’t actually write. Even after his death, many of those series have continued. He’s one of those authors that were hugely popular without being especially important, favored by grandparents and airport patrons in need of something to read. None of that was true in 1984 when his debut novel, “The Hunt for Red October,” was published. An immediate success, the novel was quickly optioned for a film adaptation. Despite Clancy’s popularity, it would take until 1990 for the movie version of “The Hunt for Red October” to arrive. The film was also a huge success, one of the top grosser of the year. For director John McTiernan, it was his third big hit in a row, further proof that the action auteur’s success wasn’t a fluke.

Marko Ramius, captain of the Soviet submarine Red October, intends to defect from his country. In order to do so, he murders a political officer and essentially steals the experimental sub. With the ability to travel undetected by sonar, the Red October approaches America. Both countries react. CIA analyst Jack Ryan is convinced Ramius is defecting, despite fears in the U.S. that Ramius may attempt to start World War III. Russia fears the same and sends another sub to exterminate the Red October. Ryan and U.S. submarine Dallas approach the Red October, hoping his hunch is right.

By the time the movie of “The Hunt for Red October” came out, the Cold War was basically over. The filmmaker got around this by making the movie a period piece. The tension of the Cold War is a driving force behind the story. Both the American and the Soviet governments fear that Ramius intends to launch a nuclear war. Steering a submarine into American waters is enough to inflame tensions. Yet “The Hunt for Red October” isn’t a story of the stars and stripes versus the sickle and hammer. Ryan’s empathy with Ramius stays the military of both countries. The two men, from opposite sides of the conflict, find a common ground. Cold War tensions characterize the story but the ability for enemies to put aside their differences is the story’s heart.

“Red October” is also more plot driven than any of McTiernan’s previous films. “Predator” and “Die Hard” had premises that could be boiled down to a single sentence. “Red October” follows three or four major plot lines, each with characters of their own. Ryan and Ramius don’t even meet until over half-way through. There are many narrative false leads and double-crosses. The script follows events on three different submarines and in two different continents. For a while, the audience isn’t even sure of Ramius’ loyalties. With a slightly less clear script, “The Hunt for Red October” probably would’ve collapsed into convoluted nonsense.

Since most of the film is set on different, similar looking submarines, McTiernan deploys a clever trick. Each ship is color-coded. All the Red October scenes are filtered through cool blue, the Apollo sequences are given a neutral color, and the scenes on the enemy Russian sub are a siring red. Another clever trick the director employs concerns the Russian ship mates. At first speaking their own language, they switch over to English following a slow-zoom in on one man’s mouth. Even before Ryan comes aboard, there are other problems on Red October. There’s a saboteur on the Red October, which disables their caterpillar drive. McTiernan’s fast paced direction keeps the sequences compelling, the camera moving quickly inside the tight confines.

“The Hunt for Red October” is also very well paced. The scenes aboard the Red October bristle with a quiet tension. The moments involving Jack Ryan’s pursuit of Ramius propel the plot forward. Yet McTiernan and his team make room for quieter moments. Many of the earlier scenes aboard the Apollo are almost comfy. The introduction to Courtney B. Vance’s Seaman Jones, the audio analyst aboard the sub, has him sharing his affinity for classical music. Vance is one of the more underrated elements of the film. A character going on about aquatic audio, whale songs or underwater seismic activity, could have been dull. Vance’s easy-going attitude helps these more far-out plot aspect go down easier.

“Red October” was probably sold to masses as a vehicle for Sean Connery, who was riding a career revival following “The Untouchables” and the third “Indiana Jones” flick. Despite playing a Lithuanian, Connery makes no attempt to disguise his famous Scottish brogue. While Connery gets to play action hero, shattering a man’s throat, his best moments are more quiet. A monologue about how he widowed his wife when he became a sailor is effectively dramatic. As good as Connery is in that scene, Sam Neill nearly steals the scene. His discussion about how life will be in America, about trucks and wives, is both funny and touching.

Along side such a domineering screen presence as Sean Connery is Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan. Ryan is technically the protagonist of the film. His willingness to trust Ramius is what holds the plot together. “The Hunt for Red October” came during the brief time when Baldwin was still a viable leading man. The part actually calls for Ryan to dial back the brooding intensity he’s known for. Ryan is instead an intellectual family man. He’s not one for action, as airplane rides make him sick. When the script calls for him to pick up a gun and fight a bad guy in the last act, it doesn’t seem to fit the character. Baldwin’s not bad. He has good chemistry with Connery. When whispering sarcastic asides, Baldwin is fine. Still, he’s undeniably not the eye-catching actor in the film.

A decent supporting cast holds up the leads. Scott Glenn is good as the surprisingly down-to-Earth captain of the Apollo. He’s ability to bring a reasonable aspect to any authority figure is well utilized. James Earl Jones brings a little bit of humor to what is otherwise an undefined mentor part. Tim Curry plays a nervous crew member of the Red October, playing off his ability to be amusingly flustered very well. Jeffrey Jones’ eccentric qualities are brought to the part of a submarine expert.

The submarine sequence would be praised at the time of release. While some of the special effects haven’t aged the best, the model work is still fantastic. The movie mines the underwater combat scenes for some decent sequence. An early scene, of the Red October nearly avoiding a torpedo while navigating an underwater canal, is mildly suspenseful. The titular submarine’s “caterpillar drive,” a silent engine, is the plot device that motivates the film. Much attention is paid to the drive being sabotaged and how it will affect the ship’s travel. Another scene has a torpedo nearly striking the boat, exploding just before it hits the target. A sequence, revolving around a smaller sub docking with the Red October, also generates some okay tension.

It all leads up to the climax, the only time “Red October” can truly classify as an action movie. While Ryan pursues the saboteur through the innards of the boat, bullets ricocheting off the sub’s interior, the rival Russian ship fires at them. McTiernan’s skills as an action director elevates this scene, his quick-cutting making it seem more frenzied than it actually is. The boats trading fire is actually rather so paced. The way the enemy submarine is destroyed occurs in murky waters, stern men shouting instructions off-screen. Despite being difficult to follow, the sequence still works reasonable. It ends “The Hunt for Red October” on an exciting note.

Basil Poledouris provides the score. Poledouris created some of the most powerful eighties action scores ever, the “Conan the Barbarian” soundtrack being his crowning achievement. Poledouris’ music draws extensively from the Soviet national anthem. When sung by a barrel-chested choir, it makes for quite a rousing piece of music. The instrumental reprises drives up the tension during the film’s action sequence. While not as immediately hummable as Poledouris’ best work, it is still a solid piece of music and suits the film.

Like Tom Clancy’s source novel, “The Hunt for Red October” is a page-turner. It captivates, excites, and amuses. It also doesn’t linger in the brain very long. Still, it provided McTiernan with another success, furthering his reputation as the biggest action director of the time. Other directors, and actors, would attempt to extend the Jack Ryan franchise. The other films have done well but none of them have totally replicated this one’s success, critically or commercially.  [Grade: B]

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