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We're talking about several billion dollars of Soviet state property. And they're going to want it back.

The Hunt for Red October
(1990)

(SPOILERS) I’ve always wondered why The Hunt for Red October became such a big hit (sixth of the year in the US, eleventh worldwide), when it seems to function antithetically to the presumed goal of a tense, claustrophobic submarine thriller. Instead, it’s a highly glossy affair, courtesy of at-peak-cachet director John McTiernan and cinematographer Jan de Bont; not for them the gloomy, dank interiors associated with the sub subgenre. Perhaps audiences flocked to it because, with its 1984 setting (the year of Tom Clancy’s novel of the same name), it represented the first opportunity to be nostalgic about the Cold War, safe in the knowledge of who had “won”.

Skip Tyler: Well, this thing could park a couple of hundred warheads off Washington and New York and no one would know anything about it until it was all over.

Certainly, there’s no doubt about the movie’s sympathies, as you’d expect from the staunchly right-wing Clancy (this was his first published novel, which became a bestseller after Reagan vouched for it). Indeed, you’re much more likely to find self-interrogatory pictures concerning East-West ethics made during the Cold War than retrospectively. We don’t need an explanation for Soviet sub captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) defecting. He does so simply because the Soviets are bad guys, so anyone with an ounce of moral decency would by necessity betray their country.

All we need to know is that he captains “a ship which had but one use” (apparently, Ramius had few qualms prior to commandeering this particular stealth sub) and so feels compelled to turn it over to the good guys, good guys offering the honourable Soviets farms in Montana, in their dreams. Indeed, Ramius has no compunction in killing Peter Firth’s political officer Putin(!) in an early scene, following a frosty exchange (“How many agents did the KGB put aboard my boat?” – it turns out several, as he forgot about the cook, not, on this occasion, played by Steven Seagal).

General: Oh, come on. You’re just an analyst. What can you know what possibly goes on in his mind?

The Americans – the principal Soviets are played by British or Australian actors – are an entirely decent bunch, guided, of course, by Alec Baldwin’s original incarnation of Jack Ryan. Ryan’s only an analyst because he spent ten months in traction following a helicopter crash; he’s a true hero underneath, despite his bookish exterior, and ready to prove it by plunging from an entirely different helicopter into a freezing ocean to test his theory (“Somebody must really have a burr up his ass – not a Scottish one, presumably – to go for a stunt like this!”)

Baldwin inhabits the role more convincingly than any subsequent Ryans, but there’s a pervading sense that his shrewdness and intuitive leaps are smoke and mirrors and not that impressive really; we’re steered to think so because he shouts “Son of a bitch!” with conviction during a top brass meeting, and because others seems so determined to do him down. As Vincent Canby observed of the plot, it “seems to be a lot more complex than it really is”.

Indeed, while critics were generally kind to The Hunt for Red October, a number took issue with the picture’s limited vision. Rolling Stone’s Pete Travers succeeded in summing up both its politics and cinematic deficits, asking – anecdotally – in his opening paragraph “how does a book that has readers checking their pulses become a movie that has audiences checking their watches?” Kim Newman, meanwhile, called it an “overlong, humourless suspense picture”.

McTiernan was fresh off back-to-back hits Predator and Die Hard, and it appeared he could do no wrong. Maybe he thought this was his version of a prestige picture (one certainly got that sense from his subsequent reteaming with Connery, the flop Medicine Man), eschewing as it did gratuitous gunfire and proving he could handle a lower octane, more sedate thriller. Coincidentally or not, its notable that, as in Die Hard, protagonist and “antagonist” “spar” from a distance, guessing their opponent’s moves; unfortunately, there’s a sense here that they respect each other’s keen intelligence because that’s what the script says, rather than anything intrinsic to the characters or their behaviour.

The “mature” thriller, of calculation and conversation, is certainly an attractive garland to wear, if you can pull it off; Clancy’s work is praised for technical accuracy (his studied inventiveness was the cause, as he told it, of the then Navy Secretary asking “Who the hell cleared it?”) The movie has the confident bearing of such authenticity, of the procedural format adopted the following year by another best seller adaptation, The Silence of the Lambs (both featuring Scott Glenn), even if the fine print is entirely less persuasive.

Borodin: And I will have a pickup truck. Or even, possibly, a recreational vehicle. And drive from state to state. Do they let you do that?

As a result, there are times when The Hunt for Red October feels like one long longueur. Indeed, it’s largely the cast who keep things watchable. Sam Neill’s especially good value as the tempered, reflective Captain Borodin, able to engage in some enjoyable interplay with Connery. Richard Jordan makes for a memorably self-aware National Security Advisor, on team Ryan, and there’s an early Hollywood role for Stellan Skarsgård. Tim Curry’s a soviet doctor, and James Earl Jones and Joss Ackland play exactly the kind of roles they usually play.

Ramius: Once more we play our dangerous game.

This is a very handsome production, then, although some of its conceits end up on the wrong side of laughable – having Russian spoken early on leads to some slightly risible repeated phrases such as “It is time”; “Yes, it is time”. Although, there’s a certain dubious pleasure in hearing Connery announce “We shail into hishtory”. He boasts the kind of Scottish burr only a Lithuanian can and also one of his very best rugs: dirt cheap, apparently, but owing to his starting filming with a ponytail, it was effectively $20k’s worth after aghast producers order reshoots of the offending scenes.

Ryan: I'm not field personnel. I'm only an analyst.

It seems Harrison Ford turned the Ryan role down on this occasion because he thought the character was second fiddle to Ramius. Which he is, but a bigger issue with The Hunt for Red October is that – however his novels actually read – Clancy on screen is a combination of the vanilla and the preposterous that doesn’t tend to work very well. Hollywood is still trying to make hay from Jack Ryan, most recently on Amazon Prime and with an upcoming Paramount adaptation of Without Remorse focussing on spinoff character John Clark. But unlike Bond, Ryan’s a blank, only ever as interesting as the actor who plays him. As he says at one point, “I just write books for the CIA”. He never really convinces you otherwise.


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