Friday, May 2, 2008

The Hunt for Red October

"The Hunt for Red October" (John McTiernan, 1989) We're big fans of Alec Baldwin in the LNTAM household, so every so often it's nice to go back and see "serious actor" Baldwin before he stretched his comic chops. "The Hunt for Red October" was a dry-as-a-bone Tom Clancy novel based on a long-rumored incident involving a Russian nuclear submarine accident that Clancy turned into a cat-and-mouse game between a defecting Russian sub commander, and the American and Russian fleets in the North Atlantic. The action was sometimes intriguing, but the characters were non-existent, right down to the motivations of Captain Ramius, and the novel's Clancy stand-in-hero Jack Ryan.
Mace Neufeld (who must have the patience of a saint given his long-term relationship with Clancy) turned it into a first-class film of intrigue top-heavy with male actors (by my count the only females are two stewardesses, Gates
--Star Trek's "Dr. Crusher"--McFadden as Mrs. Ryan, and the kid who plays Ryan's daughter). So, here's the run-down: Baldwin, Sam Neill, James Earl Jones, Scott Glenn, Courtney Vance (making the most of a geat part), Richard Jordan, Joss Ackland, Stellan Skarsgard, Peter Firth, Jeffrey Jones, Tim Curry, Fred Thompson, plus comedian Rick Ducommun and I swear I see Michael Biehn in the helicopter scene. And as the man everybody talks about, Sean Connery as the Scottish-accented Lithuaninan Comdr. Ramius.

It all works, as a spy/adventure story, as a detective story, a military exercise, and a submarine movie...and a character piece. Nobody comes out and says anything about their feelings but actions define the characters, and with all the sub-time, there's a lot of celluloid of people standing around talking..and for the most part it's good functional talk that propels the movie along. Plus, you'll come away with a gloss of submarine tactics, of sonar capacities, the strategies of "arming" torpedoes, and a healthy respect for difficulties of landing a jet-aircraft on a carrier during bad weather.* Respect also for Baldwin, who managed to make a human being out of the cypher of Jack Ryan through the force of his own personality--his Ryan is something of a geek, like Ben Affleck's later interpretation--and proved himself an adept for actor imitations (nice skewering of Thompson and Connery there, Alec) Plus, a crisp snap to the brim for suggesting and making good on the overhead shot of Ryan cutting his tether from a helicopter to gain entry to an American sub during a violent storm, and looking UP at the camera to make sure we all know it's him doing the stunt.

There was minimal CGI involved--and in fact, due to budget constraints, the filming of the underwater scenes were as low-tech as you could get--model shots of subs were laid-over underwater landscapes filmed in a dry warehouse filled with smoke. Crude particle and wave generation was all that was needed to complete the image. But it's indicative of the back-to-basics approach to "The Hunt for Red October"--an old-fashioned sea-hunt that satisfies.

* But my favorite moment in the movie is a brilliant stroke--the smooth transition in dialog from Russian to English as Firth's Political Officer reads a passage from a bible owned by Ramius' wife: the camera moves in on Firth reading the passage--Revelation 16:16-17--(in Russian) and stops on one commonly-pronounced word--"Armageddon"--and when the camera begins to pull back, he English. It's a neat trick, perfectly strategized and played.

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