Friday, August 21, 2020

Green Phoenix - The Hunt for Red October (1990) Review

The Hunt for Red October movie poster.png 

The works of Tom Clancy have long been held as the pinnacle of Cold War and post-Cold War era political thrillers. While the works of Tom Clancy are known these days primarily for the Rainbow Six series of video games; during the 1990s, audiences were gifted with a trilogy of very high quality films. Filled with A-cast celebrities and featuring the highlights of late Cold War era politics and intrigue, the Jack Ryan trilogy, as it might sometimes be known, all started with 1984's The Hunt for Red October.

NOTE: I consider Sum of All Fears and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit to be reboots and not sequels.

Based on Tom Clancy's debut novel of the same name, the book and film achieved phenomenal success and catapulted Clancy to international notoriety. Clancy's masterful integration of hardcore science fiction and political thrillers created a tense exploration of the minds of two men. One, an infamous Soviet submarine Captain, and the other a former US marine turned CIA analyst. The struggle to understand each other's motives outside of direct communication and in direct contrast of the interest of their respective home nations create a true sense of thrill and anxiety.

But does the film hold up after nearly 30 years? Are the performances as good as I remember them from when I was growing up? And is the story just as exhilarating with the Cold War now only a fleeting memory in the mind of most moviegoers?

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  • Directed by John McTiernan
  • Produced by Mace Neufield Productions
  • MPAA Rating: G
  • Running Time: 135 Minutes
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SUMMARY

It is a period of incredibly high tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The threat of nuclear war is almost always on the minds of the political and military minds of both nations. Only the policies of brinkmanship and mutually assured destruction seem to halt this seemingly inevitable apocalypse.
 
So when an infamous Soviet submarine captain named Marco Ramius, played by Sean Connery, seemingly goes rogue with a state of the art nuclear submarine known as the Red October, the United States political and military community panics. For the Red October possesses a revolutionary new "catepillar drive" which allows the submarine to become effectively invisible to American sonar scanners. This nuclear submarine could, as the film so eloquently puts it, "park 100 warheads off the East Coast and no one would know until it was all over."

As a manhunt from both the Soviets and the Americans begins for Ramius, only a single CIA analyst named Jack Ryan believes he knows Ramius' true motive: defection to the United States. Now with only a set amount of time to prove his theory and the risk of nuclear apocalypse should he be wrong, The Hunt for Red October will be a dangerous hunt indeed.

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REVIEW

Of the original three 1990s Tom Clancy movies, I think I like The Hunt for Red October the least. It is most certainly not a terrible film, possessing stunning performances by an extraordinary cast and set pieces and narrative beats that I think are up there with some of the greatest submarine warfare films of all time.

It's honestly just that the film doesn't possess the same level of emotional impact that Patriot Games or Clear and Present Danger has. This coupled with a story that, unfortunately, takes just a little too long to really get moving into the thrilling bits, leaves The Hunt for Red October a cerebral but difficult film to get through sometimes.

VISUALS - 6/10

THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER At 30: New Sizzle For Cold (War) Stakes ...
It is an unfortunate truth that the action sequences in submarine war films, much like classic Star Trek, are incredibly interesting on their own. For the most part, submarine battles are people staring at computer screens, pressing buttons, and waiting for torpedoes to either hit or miss. This unfortunately makes films like The Hunt for Red October not the most interesting for hardcore action junkies, so if you are looking for that, you will be disappointed.
 
From a visual and stylistic choice, this film is peak 1980s in a lot of its sensibilities of design. Much darker and less positive than its sequels, The Hunt for Red October was in production during the waning days of the Soviet Union and, in some ways, represents the last moments when the United States wasn't sure of its hegemony over global politics. The film's visual style is unique in the series because of this and I think it gives the film a much grittier and down-to-earth tone, unlike the more heroic and suave Jack Ryan in the Harrison Ford films, Alec Baldwin's Jack Ryan is more "nerdy" and uncertain of himself.

The works of Tom Clancy focus on the "nerdy" aspects of intelligence, moving away from the James Bond style of spy films. It is quite refreshing and really helps the Tom Clancy series stand out from many other more "action spy thrillers".

It's just a shame the rebooted films could never understand this.

SOUNDTRACK - 8/10


I absolutely adore the music from all three of the 1990s Tom Clancy movies. As I've been writing this article, I have been humming all of them incessantly. The Hunt for Red October's soundtrack was the brainchild of Basil Poledouris, the musical mind behind RoboCop, Conan the Barbarian, and Free Willy.

The soundtrack has a very solemn and somber tone to it, which matches the relatively high stakes and really works to evoke a rather Russian sound to it, at least to an American who grew up on Cold War era movies and has a certain perception of Soviet music. The opening theme is just amazing and I cannot state how strongly I suggest that you go check it out. The Hunt for Red October is a very dialog heavy film and, as such, the music needs to be both understated as to not distract from the dialog while also ensuring that the audience can pick up on subtle nods to a character through musical motifs.

Basil Poledouris' other works are incredibly iconic and I feel like The Hunt for Red October is no different, though it can be quite difficult to find the music online, as the original soundtracks were designed for Cassette's and were rather incomplete, missing the haunting rendition of the Soviet national anthem that plays a fundamentally critical part in the overall plot of the film.

On the whole, the soundtrack is wonderful in that it fulfills its purpose beautifully without overstaying its welcoming or distracting from the more cerebral moments of the film, a difficult task for many films to accomplish.

Beyond the soundtrack, the sound design is also incredible. Submarine films by and large can't rely on fast-paced action like a ship battle or airplane dogfight. As stated earlier, submarines are usually filmed as people sitting at desks pushing buttons, maybe exterior shots of the submarines moving. As such, filmmakers have to use sound to properly convey the action on screen. The pings of radar scanners, the sounds of water or crunching metal, the bellow of sirens, all of these elements are required to immerse the viewer in actions that are, oftentimes, painfully uninteresting on their own merits. Place on top of the fact that a key narrative point for the titular Red October is that it is uncharacteristically silent for a submarine, and sound suddenly evolves beyond its cinematic additions into a key element of the narrative progression.

I adore this element of the film and it really goes to show the brilliance of the sound designers and editors. It's a difficult balancing act and The Hunt for Red October approaches the act succinctly and gloriously.

CHARACTERS - 8/10

Jack Ryan is one of my favorite fictional characters. In many ways, Jack Ryan is a criticism of the James Bond secret agent type. Real intelligence agencies are usually filled with analysts and computer nerds, not the suave sophisticates dealing with supervillains. In this way, Alec Baldwin really does a spectacular job capturing that bookish intellectual aspect of Ryan's character. Jack Ryan is not an action hero, no matter what more recent films would have you believe. Even the few moments of action in the 90s trilogy of films is far more grounded, with The Hunt for Red October easily the most unique in terms of Ryan's characterization. Someone unsure and unaccustomed to field work, Jack Ryan is forced to rise to the occasion when proving his theory means going out to meet the Red October and even have a shootout in the engine room.
Alec Baldwin Played the Forgotten Jack Ryan in 'The Hunt for Red ...
 
In contrast, I think it is ironic that Jack Ryan's counterpart in this move, the enigmatic and confident Captain Ramius is played by the most famous actor to ever play James Bond. Sean Connery gives the Soviet submariner a deep sense of gravitas and dignity to his performance. Captain Ramius is a master of his craft and keeps his actual objectives a mystery all the way up to the meeting with Jack Ryan at the beginning of the third act. The fact that Sean Connery is playing a Russian with a Scottish accent is hilarious and somewhat distracting, but it surprisingly works for him.

The rest of the cast is equally good, with the crew of the USS Dallas being a particular highlight. Everyone just has so much personality and they mesh and clash with the crew of the Red October in a way that really works for making us feel the tension between two people that cannot speak with each other. We also have James Earl Jones as Greer, Ryan's superior and the Deputy Director of the CIA who is just phenomenal as well.

The Hunt for Red October is a story that relies very heavily on its cast to carry its narrative and the film does an amazing job at creating a set of memorable, yet grounded, characters for us to follow, fear for, and root on.

STORY - 6/10

Tom Clancy's novels have always been filled with military and political intrigue, especially the Jack Ryan series. But Clancy takes a much more cerebral approach to his intrigue and "spy" motifs. Jack Ryan spends his time coming through books and holding dialogs with side characters than in fighting terrorists or stopping villainous plots. This results in stories that are much more intelligent and grounded than your average blockbuster mindless schlock, but can sometimes result in a very slow and, for lack of a better term, boring film.

And I am sorry to say the The Hunt for Red October falls into this latter category. The film certainly has moments of action, but they are almost exclusively in the third act, which is essentially two simultaneous set pieces: the battle with the V. K. Konovalov and Ryan's shootout in the Red October's engine room. These scenes are great and highlight the best of Clancy's sparse action moments, but they come too little too late, as the rest of the film is unfortunately very dry for most audiences.

I actually remembering bringing this film on a school trip as a movie to watch on the bus. The class selected the film out of curiosity and made it all the way up to 5 minutes before the final fight sequence before turning the film off. The film just takes too much time to get to the climax of the film and might have benefited from more emotional ties for Ryan to the overall plot. This is why Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger work so much better in my opinion. Those stories are driven by Ryan's personal investment beyond his job. In The Hunt for Red October, Ryan doesn't become directly involved in the Red October's fate until he makes his way to the USS Dallas, so the audience isn't really invested in his struggles on an emotional level. We just want him to win because he is the protagonist, but if he fails, his job might continue unabated.

The Hunt for Red October is not a terrible story, but I do think that it is unrefined. A representation of Tom Clancy's early writing style. It stands as something that hadn't quite managed to balance out the emotional connection for the Jack Ryan character that future films would succeed upon. This leaves The Hunt for Red October as a flawed but fine piece of sci-fi military thriller.

FINAL THOUGHTS

This will not be the last time I discuss the Tom Clancy novels, or even the series or characters as a whole. I adore this franchise and will absolutely go out of my way to sing its praises or promote my own interpretations of the future of the franchise.
 
But that will be for a different time. Next week we will take a step back in time and examine an altogether different kind of spy movie. The first film of the most famous spy in cinematic history.

VISUALS
  • 6/10
SOUNDTRACK
  • 8/10
CHARACTERS
  • 8/10
STORY
  • 6/10

 FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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