I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Here is a thing that I am increasingly dealing with in the latter years of the second decade of the 21st century when it comes to studio moviemaking: Which awful aspect of the movie itself and everything in its orbit — casting, production, marketing, etc — should I be most angry at? Or do I have enough rage to spread it around? (Spoiler: I have a lot of rage.)
I mean, for starters, Hunter Killer is like a remake of The Hunt for Red October if Michael Bay directed it, except not even Michael Bay, who at least evinces a certain level of technical flair even if it is almost always deployed in the most painfully jingoistic and propagandistic ways. The only noticeable reaction Hunter Killer provokes, apart from extreme boredom punctuated by moments of laugh-out-loud ridicule, is a strong desire to watch The Hunt for Red October again so as to remind oneself what real submarine suspense feels like. How was this allowed to come to pass?
For this is Red October as made by a Michael Bay wannabe who can’t even be bothered to rise to the level of giving-a-shit-if-only-in-a-terrible-way that propaganda represents. Who is this Donovan Marsh who directed Hunter Killer and who isn’t even trying to make us feel anything? He’s not actively engaging an unthinking patriotism; he’s not riling up a testosterone-fueled actiongasm; he doesn’t give us characters to care about on even the basic hey-they’re-marginally-human-so-I-should-feel-something scale; he’s definitely not arousing an intellectualism surrounding the — *ahem* — preposterous geopolitical situation his story exists in. How did this guy, with only a few micro-budget projects in his home country of South Africa to his name, score this sweet studio gig? Is this yet another example of a white man who somehow makes the leap to major projects with big stars and big budgets on the basis of almost nothing, while nonwhite men and women of all colors with serious track records cannot get their projects made? Only to give us a movie this screamingly mediocre? It sure looks that way.
I could also Hulk out about the fact that Hunter Killer star Gerard Butler held a press conference at the Pentagon this week — was allowed to hold a press conference at the Pentagon this week — in order to promote this movie. The US military has a long tradition of supporting Hollywood as long as the movie-product makes it looks good, but I’ve never before heard of anything like this. Is the US government literally nothing more than celebrity-fucking reality entertainment now? Jesus Christ.
Of course the Pentagon wholly approves of Hunter Killer, which “partner[ed] with the US Navy in nearly every aspect of the production,” according to the film’s production notes quoted at IndieWire. (I was not permitted to attend a press screening — I did ask — so I didn’t snag production notes, which are typically made available to critics and other film journalists in connection with such events.) Based on the apparently sub–Tom Clancy novel Firing Point, by George Wallace and Don Keith — which I have not read, but just look at the movie version — Hunter Killer positively fellates the US Navy with its depiction of Butler’s newly promoted sub captain Joe Glass, who ain’t no fancypants Annapolis grad but a grunt who worked his way up through the ranks to the level of badass renegade patriot to whom the rules don’t apply that he is now. He doesn’t trust the suits in their plush offices back in Washington, but the grunts under him shouldn’t think he’s gonna let them get away with anything, either. Anyone who doesn’t love and respect him already will love and respect him by the end of the movie, he’s just that great. He loves the smell of whatever submarines smell like in the morning, which probably isn’t very nice, but is very manly.
(There is one woman on his boat, the USS Alabama, who gets to speak, very occasionally and extremely briefly. She is basically Lt. Uhura and doesn’t say anything other than the sub equivalent of “Hailing frequencies open, sir.” Better that they hadn’t bothered with a token woman at all.)
Anyway, the fantasyland alt-reality that USS Alabama takes place in is one in which the American president is a woman (Caroline Goodall: A Street Cat Named Bob, The Dressmaker) — who appears in one scene and seems to be a reasonable leader — and the Russian president (Alexander Diachenko) is Definitely Not Putin but he’s also not American and hence must be depicted as pretty ineffectual. He gets coup’ed over by his military minister, Admiral Dmitri Durov (Michael Gor: The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Bridge of Spies), and has to be rescued by fucking American elite soldiers secretly on Russian soil in order to avert the World War III that Durov wants to start for some inexplicable reason. This is some America roolz! Everybody else droolz! shit the likes of which we have not seen from Hollywood since the Cold War and should have stayed dead. But it’s, like, subtle, as if the lack of Bay-esque Stars-and-Stripes in the slo-mo breeze at the golden hour makes it any less pure agitprop.
That’s far from the only embarrassing crap here. There’s also a lot of bad FX: Pretty much every time we see the exterior of the Alabama on the surface, it looks like Butler and his determined grimace have been green-screened in next to it. Pretty much every time we see the exterior of the sub underwater, it looks miniature. Still, that would be forgivable if there were any excitement or tension in the submarine action, such as the “let’s navigate the impossibly dangerous underwater terrain using only our intuition” scene that insults the Red October sequence it is kinda-sorta lifted from. One bit in which the officers of the Alabama are trying to determine whether another sub was torpedoed involves some physical evidence that wouldn’t stump Encyclopedia Brown, yet the film acts like Glass’s deconstruction of it is proof of his naval genius.
Every line of dialogue is painfully awkward exposition, roaring bombast — mostly delivered by a scenery-chewing Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour, Child 44) as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — or utter cliché. Sometimes the clichés aren’t spoken but are conveyed by mere “meaningful” looks between hackneyed excuses for characters: I guffawed at one nod of the head that could be taken to mean “Go on without me” only if everyone involved somehow meta-knew precisely what sort of story they were in the middle of. That nod could have meant, by the guy nodding it, “Oh, cool, I see you’ve got my back, which is great because I need some help here,” who was then quite surprised to be abandoned by his friend.
Michael Nyqvist (Frank & Lola, John Wick), as a Russian sub captain, does his dignified best to channel Sean Connery, but he doesn’t have a lot to work with; nor does poor Linda Cardellini (A Simple Favor, Daddy’s Home 2) as an NSA honcho whom the script seems to be continually demanding that she justify the expertise and authority it has allegedly imbued her with. They both should have just given a terse little nod of “Go on without me” and left Hunter Killer to fend for itself.