I love this movie to death. There may be no other movie I own which I have watched more, save for the original Star Wars. It’s my go-to, a perfect bit of cinematic comfort food.
That said, I almost hesitate to use the comfort food analogy, as it connotes a lack of relative refinement or even in some cases quality, something that (even though it isn’t of “prestige” status) The Hunt for Red October most certainly cannot be described as lacking. This is an expertly made film from a director at the height of his powers. This was the cap to an incredible trifecta of films from John McTiernan, coming hot off the heels of Predator and Die Hard. That we never really saw that McTiernan again is nothing less than a travesty.
It’s funny, because a lot of people seem willing to pass this off as little more than popcorn fare, and large part because of Sean Connery’s Capt. Ramius. Connery doesn’t even attempt anything remotely resembling an Eastern European accent and for that reason alone some seem content to treat the rest of the film as a lightweight.
How wrong they are.
I’ll get more into Connery in a bit, but let’s talk first about why this really is something of an unsung masterpiece. Foremost is the script and McTiernan’s direction. This is an action/thriller, but it’s one of the most tightly scripted, character-driven scripts of its kind that I’ve ever watched. This is a film that is propelled by a series of moments that are anchored by the moving plot, but are driven by the actions and deep personalities of these characters. Everything is motivated by the brave intentions of this core group of Russian naval officers and the perceptive analysis of a low-ranking CIA analyst.
For a film that could have gotten mired in the technical details and politics of the day (though the underlying residual tension of the Cold War still lingers and is surely a significant part of why it was such a hit back in its release), McTiernan and writers Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart did a tremendous job of adapting Tom Clancy’s novel to the screen. I used to be a huge fan of Clancy’s work, but even I would get bogged down at times trying to slough through page after page of technical jargon detailing the inner workings of a submarine. None of that’s here, and in its place a larger focus on the characters, and the film is all the better for it.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, as McTiernan showed in his previous two films that he has an iron grip on establishing distinct personalities and memorable characters with an almost startling efficiency. Take the motley crew of mercenaries in Predator. Every single one of them is memorable in their own way. Whether it’s Hawkins and his horrible jokes or Mac threatening to “bleed ya real quiet” to Dillon, they each get a couple different moments so that they’re inevitable destruction actually means something to the audience. The same goes with Die Hard. What could have been a fairly standard action flick gets turned into something much greater, all because McTiernan really knew how to make those smaller, sometimes quieter, moments really count, a skill that is used to an incredible degree here.
One of the best sequences in the entire film showcases just what I’m talking about (in addition to being a perfect microcosm of everything the film as a whole does right). Ramius and his First Officer, Borodin (Sam Neill), are sharing a quiet conversation in the captain’s quarters. Ramius inquires what Borodin hopes to do once they successfully defect to the United States and Borodin speaks fondly of his desire to live in Montana, find a “round American woman” who will cook for him the rabbits he raises. He wants to drive a pickup truck and live in Arizona during the winter.
It’s a soft moment, one of unexpected vulnerability from a man who has spent the movie thus far as a stern pillar of support to his captain. Ramius, on the other hand, looks forward to once more experiencing the serenity of fishing. He talks of a lifetime spent at sea, fighting a war with no battles or monuments, only casualties. All of this is intercut against shots of the U.S.S. Dallas as it tracks the Red October, as well as the Russian crew going about their duties. It projects this incredible blend of tension, atmosphere and even an unexpected bit of serenity that still focuses on character amid such a volatile situation at large.
It’s a perfect moment, for my money, anchored by two wonderful performances. Sam Neill shows that Borodin is sort of the unsung beating heart of the film, as it is his character’s optimism and dreaming that made such a brash, bold act as defection possible in the first place. Neill is fantastic, making this small moment count, so much so that when Borodin is shot through the heart and his last words of “I would like to have seen Montana” it’s impact is at maximum.
This feels like one of the last warm and nuanced performances we ever really got out Connery (save for Finding Forrester and, I’m told, The Russia House). His work in this scene particularly does a tremendous job of showing the history and bond shared between Borodin and Ramius in such a short amount of time. No, he doesn’t sound remotely Russian, but who cares. If you can’t see the forest for the trees on this one, stop watching movies.
But it’s not just these two. Even some of the “smallest” bit players in this are memorable, be it Kamarov boasting about flying a windowless plane through the Alps with only a stopwatch and a map, or Courtney B. Vance as the brilliant sonar tech. Even Stellan Skarsgard makes a mighty impression with less than five minutes screentime. (The silent rage behind his delivery of “We’re going to kill a friend, Yvgeni. We’re going to kill Ramius” is nothing short of brilliant.) Oh, and let’s not forget the amazing Scott Glenn (aka the American Jurgen Prochnow).
I’d be remiss, too, if I didn’t mention Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan. Baldwin has never gotten his proper due as an actor, I don’t think. Sure, he’s a Big Name Actor (though more for his television work lately), but no one’s ever really figured out how to consistently use him to his fullest potential. Regardless, he does solid work here and is my preferred screen depiction of the Jack Ryan character. He’s calm, analytical but never stolidly so. It’s good stuff.
If nothing else, The Hunt for Red October is proof that you don’t have to be nominated for a half dozen Oscars or be subtitled in French or whatever in order to be a masterpiece of film. All it takes is a dedication to character and form to be something truly great.