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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Hunt for Red October (review)

In the Navy

A friend of mine says that when she first saw The Hunt for Red October, she wanted to run right out and become a sonar operator on a submarine.

It’s true: The Hunt for Red October is the most expensive Navy-recruitment commercial ever made. It’s also one of the smartest action movies ever to come out of Hollywood. Ultimately, Red October is a clever game of cat-and-mouse between two men on opposite sides of an ideological war who turn out to have more in common that either of them might have guessed.
The year is 1984. CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin: Notting Hill, Outside Providence) has made such an astounding discovery amongst his intelligence reports that he rushes from his London base to Washington D.C. himself with the evidence: The Soviets have launched a new type of submarine, something bigger and more advanced than anything the U.S. has. Further investigation leads to an even more ominous conclusion: the sub, the Red October, has a nearly silent propulsion system, which would allow it to get close enough to the United States to launch nuclear missiles with no warning. (Cool. I mean, the discovery, not the awful information that is discovered. You can keep the Navy. Me, I wanted to run right out and join the CIA.)

Cut to the Red October, where Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery: Entrapment, The Avengers) is, unbeknownst to his crew, engaging in some shocking behavior. After the “dreadful accident” leading to the death of the ship’s political officer (a kind of babysitter for Ramius), the captain announces that the Red October is to play “a game of chess… against the U.S. Navy.” The game begins when the American sub Dallas — captained by the by-the-book Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn: Absolute Power, The Silence of the Lambs) and with a talented sonar operator (Courtney B. Vance) listening to the seas — catches on to Red October‘s trick and begins following her.

Is Ramius insane, about to launch an unauthorized attack on the U.S.? Or is he, as Ryan suspects, defecting with his advanced ship in the hopes of restoring the balance of power?

The Hunt for Red October is one of those rare perfect movies. From director John McTiernan’s clever disposal of subtitles for the Russian-speaking characters to Basil Poledouris’s terrifically martial score to DP Jan de Bont’s beautifully eerie underwater photography, nothing could be better. Superbly plotted and diabolically clever, Larry Ferguson’s adaptation of Tom Clancy’s novel actually improves the story, skipping over the tech porn in favor of character touches like the great scene in which Red October‘s second-in-command (Sam Neill: Event Horizon, Snow White: A Tale of Terror) details his fantasy of living in Montana (“I will have a pickup truck”).

My taste in movies may not be particularly girly, but when I say that Red October has a dream cast, I’m not talking about the quality of the acting. No: few movies have assembled this many delicious men in one place and put them in such lovely uniforms. Sam Neill and Sean Connery in particular couldn’t be tastier. Plus there’s Peter Firth (Mighty Joe Young, Amistad) as the aforementioned unfortunate political officer; Stellan Skarsgård (Ronin, Good Will Hunting) as another Russian sub captain; and Red October‘s navigator, played by some guy named Michael Welden (whom I don’t think I’ve seen again on film), who is fabulous and totally adorable.

The performances, though, are actually great. Baldwin, as a desk jockey thrown reluctantly into action, has never been better. And then there’s Tim Curry (McHale’s Navy) in a surprising straight role as the Red October‘s doctor; Richard Jordan as the president’s national security advisor butting heads with Joss Ackland as the Soviet ambassador to Washington; and of course James Earl Jones (The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, Star Wars) as Ryan’s no-nonsense boss.

The Hunt for Red October even has some of the best final words for a dying character — I think — in movie history. I won’t repeat them here, in case you’re one of the three people who hasn’t seen this film. To you I say: What are you waiting for?


viewed at home on a small screen

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