The Hunt for Red October

Midway through The Hunt for Red October a few nights ago, my wife turned to me and said “Why don’t they make movies like this anymore?”  I asked her what she meant, and she said “You know, movies with just a really good plot.”  As we spent a good chunk of our evening watching Jack Donaghy track down a renegade Henry Jones, I realized more and more the truth of her question.  Red October is an excellent film partly for what it is (a solid plot filled with political intrigue and suspenseful Soviet/American showdowns, played by a veritable Who’s Who of famous 1990’s-era leading male actors) but also for what it is not:  an exercise in special-effects showmanship and envelope-pushing visual wizardry.  It is the story of a man determined to do what he knows to be right, and a man who, by the courage of his convictions alone, does whatever it takes to help.

John McTiernan is a veteran of action movie directing, and he puts his chops to good use here, even though much of the action takes place in confined spaces aboard submarines.  Having cut his teeth on the excellent Predator (one of MJV’s favorite movies of all time) and defined an entire hero archetype with Jon McLane in the original Die Hard, he once again shows his talent for creating scenes that ratchet up suspense and tension, though this time he does it through characters and dialog alone:  a key scene in which Captain Ramius, played to the hilt by the outstanding Sir Sean Connery, orders his men to continue down a deep ocean trench even though all their sea charts point to imminent doom if they don’t turn aside is just as powerful as any minigun or broken-glass moment in other McTiernan films.  The rest of the cast is stellar as well, including Alec Baldwin, Sam Neill (working hard to perfect his Event Horizon “I am home” look), Scott Glenn, Stellan Skarsgård, James Earl Jones, and even Fred Thompson and Tim Curry (not to mention longtime McTiernan collaborator Jeffrey Jones) for good measure.

Another aspect of this film I admire is its restraint in terms of plot:  the Russians have built their largest, most powerful submarine yet, and it can run nearly silent.  However, instead of plotting the utter destruction of the United States, Ramius is ordered to conduct routine naval maneuvers in order to show the USA how powerful the Russian navy truly is.  There’s no doomsday scenario here–the Russians are not out to destroy the whole of North America.  They take a far more measured approach, which heightens the realism of the movie and makes the conflict all the more palpable.  Ramius of course has other plans, but again they are not what we would expect:  instead of ignoring orders and going ahead with the destruction of his enemies, he plans to defect and essentially give the entire submarine to the United States.  His enemies become the entire Russian navy, who wants to stop him from defecting, as well as several key players in the US Military who don’t believe such a brilliant Russian patriot would actually give himself (and his submarine) up so easily.

Jack Ryan, the longstanding Tom Clancy hero played here by Aled Baldwin, is the only one who knows what Ramius is really up to.  Here again Red October avoids cliché, and instead of having the entire movie come down to a matter of one powerful commander refusing to believe Ryan (as is the case in so many movies like this), his concerns are mostly heeded throughout the movie, and moments of tension are scattered throughout instead of having everything lead up to one moment at the end, which the audience would surely know the outcome of anyway.

One more noteworthy element of Red October is the special effects:  no cutting-edge CGI here (remember, this movie came out one year after The Abyss), just models, clever lighting and smoke effects, and some excellent practical effects.  The submarines plod along slowly underwater, visibility is limited to a few murky projections on the ocean floor and lots of particles floating past, and only the occasional torpedo belies any hint of bluescreen.  There’s a tangible quality about models that, when done right, makes then infinitely more engaging than their CGI counterparts.  The real stars here are not the subs, and had this movie been done today we would have been forced to endure bombastic and unrealistic scenes of submarines careening all over the ocean in some sort of twisted aquatic ballet.  As it stands, though, the effects take a backseat to the actors, conflict, and (gasp!) plot.  And that’s how it should be.

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