By: Kevin Jordan
Not much below the surface.
We are almost into award-consideration season, as movies like A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody start. We are also almost into the holiday movie season, where all of the remaining blockbusters of the year stomp all over those award-chasing films. But, we are not there yet, which is why I get to talk about the latest Gerard Butler action flick, Hunter Killer. Discounting voice-work in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, Butler is on a ten-year stretch of hot garbage (with the exception of Coriolanus, a movie that nobody saw or has heard of, including me). Suffice it to say, I was ready for more when I found out he was in a submarine movie with an objectively terrible title.
As action movies go, Hunter Killer is surprisingly watchable. I do not know much about submarines, which is probably why I enjoyed the movie. I suspect that is why you will enjoy it as well, if you decide to give it a whirl. There is little to quibble with regarding the action scenes and, like most submarine films, features several stressful, claustrophobic sequences where the submarine crew is one loud fart away from eating a torpedo. That is why they do not serve burritos on subs.
(Mild SPOILERS ahead.)
Commander Joe Glass (Butler) is trying to enjoy a nice bow-hunting trip where he has (presumably) trekked dozens of miles in the snow of northern Scotland to not shoot a trophy stag because a doe and fawn are nearby.* So, when his phone rings (yes, a bow-hunter had his phone set to loudly ring), even the stag does not act surprised because Glass is obviously a terrible hunter. The phone call is to task him with captaining a submarine into arctic Russian waters to discover the fate of a missing submarine (which, thanks to the opening scene, we know was sunk along with another sub from Russia).
*My movie companion for the night, who is also a bow hunter, threw the biggest bullshit card at this scene when I asked him about it.
Meanwhile, a Special Forces team of four men, led by Lt. Bill Beaman (Toby Stephens) is tasked with infiltrating a Russian submarine base to provide intelligence on the visiting Russian President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko), who left Moscow before the submarine attack in the Arctic. They are sent by Rear Admiral John Fisk (Common) on the advice of NSA analyst Jayne Norquist (Linda Cardellini) and the authority of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Charles Donnegan (Gary Oldman). If this sounds like a Tom Clancy movie, that is because it is based on a book called Firing Point, written by two men who are not Tom Clancy (Don Keith and George Wallace), but definitely have framed posters of Tom Clancy on their bedroom walls.
If you have seen enough submarine movies (or movies in general) to no longer get nervous at the mention of acoustic sensors, mines, or phrases like “no American sub has ever sailed those waters,” you will notice how shallow the characters are. The film jumps between a Pentagon operations room, the USS Arkansas (Glass’ submarine), President Zakarin’s situation in the Russian sub base, and the Black-Ops team. Between all of those, that is nine characters, and that is before we get to another Russian sub captain (Michael Nyquvist), the Russian Defense Minister (Mikhail Gorevoy), and the command crew of the Arkansas, including Glass’ angry-for-no-reason executive officer Brian Edwards (Carter MacIntyre). It is no surprise that none of them are developed beyond name, rank, and key attribute, especially when you consider that the real point of the film is to display some sweet, sweet giant metal cylinder action.
You might also notice that nearly all of the setups in the beginning of the movie are completely forgotten about or ignored by the end of the film. The most egregious example is how a big deal is made of the fact that Glass rose to command as an enlisted sailor, but this fact is only used by Glass to give a speech to his crew at the beginning of the film to let them know that they are, in fact, sailors on an American submarine. But that fact sure does piss off XO Edwards, who, if this movie were depicting anything resembling reality, would have been relieved of duty by Glass on at least three different occasions and probably confined to his quarters (if not the brig) for gross insubordination.
For me, the biggest flaw in this movie is that Gary Oldman is in it at all, designated as the Stupid Chief, delivering a performance that is best described as “that could literally have been anyone.” And, not just any chief, but the chiefiest of the Joint Chiefs. For much of the film, my friend and I both expected him to turn out as a co-conspirator with the Russian villain because nothing he said or did made any sense. And because, you know, it’s Gary Oldman. But he just barked dumb epithets and chief-y things and appeared to also want WWIII to happen. He even scoffed when the President of the United States decided to enact both Donnegan’s plan (DEPLOY EVERYTHING!!!) and Fisk and Norquist’s plan (the middle parts of The Hunt for Red October and Clear and Present Danger), which might be the most sensible decision by a fictional President in the history of film.
Really, though, we should consider it a win that this movie was not hot garbage. It satisfies any action fix you were looking for, and we do not have to sit through another over-hammed performance from Butler because he was trying to compensate for a shitty character (the emotional range displayed by Glass went from man-reads-newspaper to man-folds-newspaper-and-puts-it-in-the-recycle-bin). If anything, you get a decent novelty death in which a near-death character sacrifices himself by simultaneously flipping the bird and removing the pins on two grenades. Or, you can laugh at the fact that the main character is named after the crappiest boxer from Mike Tyson’s Punchout. Either way, I can honestly say that, after watching this film, I am ready for some Oscar-bait.
Rating: Ask for half of your money back, but do not ask if a submarine can turn ninety degrees in less than twenty feet. It is that kind of movie.