2018, R, 121 min. Directed by Donovan Marsh. Starring Gerard Butler, Common, Gary Oldman, Michael Jibson, Alexander Diachenko, Michael Gor.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Oct. 26, 2018
Years from now, historians will be able to infer a lot about our global politics by the foreign powers Hollywood chooses to pit against our country. Hunter Killer, a surprisingly fun throwback to Cold War thrillers, winds back the clock 30 years and suggests that Russia might be the perfect evil superpower to take on our endless defense funding.
After several American and Russian submarines go missing along the Russian border, Commander Joe Glass (Butler) and the crew of the USS Arkansas are sent to investigate. There they discover something shocking: In a reckless display of power, the Russian defense minister (Gor) has taken the Russian president (Diachenko) hostage and is using his absence to justify an all-out offensive against the United States. With the Arkansas standing by to assist, the president authorizes a dangerous rescue mission on Russian soil. If they fail, history will remember them as the men who were unable to stop millions from dying in the coming conflict. If Tom Clancy weren’t already dead, I’d swear the film was one of his secret unpublished screenplays.
While it's actually adapted from the novel Firing Point by journalist and submarine historian Don Keith and former sub commander George Wallace, at its best Hunter Killer feels exactly like a first-rate Clancy adaptation. The film cuts frequently between the USS Arkansas and the Navy SEAL ground force, building out a roster of enlisted men who demonstrate both competence and selflessness while on the verge of a thermonuclear war. The pleasure comes from watching trained professionals excel at their job. SEALs execute a daring seaside rescue of the Russian president, while the crew of the Arkansas survive multiple engagements with the Russian navy and navigate around treacherous underwater terrain to help them escape. Marsh makes the leap to big-budget filmmaking with aplomb, keeping things moving at a brisk pace and never letting his audience stop long enough to dwell on some of the cheaper special effects.
Given a role built exactly to his strengths, Butler also gives maybe his finest performance as Hunter Killer’s first-time commander. Glass is a career submariner who earns his first boat not as any form of political quid pro quo but as the result of decades of hands-on experience. This plays directly into Butler’s brand of everyman star power. Like the leads of many military films, Glass’ unique way of doing things also imbues the film with a subtle thread of anti-elitism; here the future of the free world rests not with the expertise of the joint chiefs of staff but with the hunches of rank-and-file officers. Hollywood is much improved in its recruitment videos.
That being said, given the familiarity of its politics and action beats, there’s something uniquely comforting about the central conflict in Hunter Killer. No matter how bad things get in the world, the movie suggests, we will always be able to rely on the judgment of good men and women to keep the peace. While this might seem laughably naive in our current political moment, for those raised on a steady diet of Eighties military paperback thrillers, it’s a welcome bit of nostalgia. Sometimes it’s nice to pretend like there’s a single bad guy out there who represents all the world’s problems.