Review of “Hunter Killer”

Commander Joe Glass (Gerard Butler) has just been put in command of the nuclear submarine USS Arkansas. This is his first command and the higher ups are nervous about having someone inexperienced in charge of a submarine armed with nuclear missiles; especially right now. Things have grown more tense with Russia and one of our nuclear subs, the USS Tampa Bay, has gone missing 40 miles off the coast of Russia in the Tamarin Sea. It was trailing a Russian sub when an explosion sends it to the bottom. The Tampa Bay was then hit by a torpedo and sunk as well. Russian President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko) is visiting one of his country’s naval bases when Defense Minister Dimitri Durov (Mikhail Gorevoy) takes him hostage in the beginning of a coup. Durov intends to start a war with the United States to reestablish Russia as a world power to be feared and respected. A SEAL team led by Lt. Bill Beaman (Toby Stephens) is sent to observe the base and beams video of the coup back to Washington. Rear Admiral John Fisk (Common) and NSA senior analyst Jayne Norquist (Linda Cardellini) suggest the SEAL team rescue Zakarin and get him to safety on board the Arkansas. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Charles Donnegan (Gary Oldman) thinks the only realistic response is to gather American forces and prepare to face the Russians. Even the slightest mistake could plunge humanity into World War III.

“Hunter Killer” is the designation given to submarines that hunt other submarines. They carry out other duties, but their primary mission is to look for enemy subs and destroy them. We get a bit of the dangerous cat-and-mouse game these subs play as “Hunter Killer” starts. It seems like a frequently tense but also usually dull way to serve your nation. Since this is a movie, the action is ladled on thick and heavy from the beginning. As long as you don’t think too much about it, the movie is a fun nautical and political action/thriller; however, give it one second of scrutiny and the film falls apart from the weight of its own silliness.

The most realistic thing about “Hunter Killer” is the possibility of a Russian president being overthrown in a coup. It nearly happened to Russia’s first popularly elected president Boris Yeltsin in 1993. A struggling economy, widespread corruption and some unconstitutional orders from Yeltsin led to an armed uprising to depose him. Military coups happen all over the world, so the possibility of something similar happening in Russia isn’t farfetched. That’s about the only thing in the film that doesn’t make you wonder.

There are several strange choices made by the filmmakers as they created the world of “Hunter Killer.” First, the likelihood a SEAL team could get close enough to a Russian naval base to be able to see anything of importance is minimal. The fjord that leads to the base is filled with acoustic sensors and mines, but there seems to be very little security in the water right in front of the base. There are also only a few surveillance cameras keeping an eye on the outside of the building, allowing our SEAL team to walk up unnoticed, even giving them time to stop and have a conversation with someone that might be willing to help.

Did you know submarines can turn on a dime? I didn’t either, but in “Hunter Killer” they can! Commander Glass plays chicken with sunken submarines and underwater cliff walls, turning just in time to save his ship and crew. I don’t know anything about the handling capabilities of a submarine, but I don’t think it’s capable of performing tight turns and quick evasive maneuvers as shown in the film.

The unlikely nature of most of the story is offset by a very likable cast and a fast-moving plot. Since most of the characters are never in the same scene at the same time, each group must anchor their parts of the story. If any of the story arcs were populated by someone miscast or just plain annoying, then it would likely have caused the movie to lose its only strength.

Gerard Butler leads a cast of mostly unknown actors playing the submariners in one prong of the story. Butler has the stoic look of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He makes a honest and heartfelt announcement to the crew before they get underway, telling them he isn’t an Annapolis graduate, but a hard-working sailor that worked his way up the ranks to command the Arkansas. Butler plays the role as a father figure, trying to guide his men without being too hands on. Glass done all their jobs and could probably do some of them better, but he also knows his crew is well trained and prepared for whatever comes their way. They are heading into uncharted waters, so to speak, and failure likely means their deaths and the beginning of World War III. Butler purses his lips in times of quiet stress as many people do. He’s an “every man” trying to make the right decisions to complete his mission and avoid starting a war. Butler is like the perfect TV dad in charge of a warship. I enjoyed his performance.

Another group with their own story is the SEAL team. Toby Stephens plays the tough-as-nails leader of the team. With two veteran SEALs and a rookie that is the focus of much of Lt. Beaman’s ire for his training shortfalls, the team will be disavowed should they be captured. The leave any identifying personal belongings on the plane before they jump into a thunderstorm, something we learned in “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” was a bad idea. Despite the constant ribbing of the rookie, Beaman likes and respects his men and knows they are the best trained and most competent team of commandos in the world. Stephens embodies Beaman, wearing the uniform like a second skin. They may not have been real SEALs but these four guys certainly looked and moved like what I would believe is a SEAL team. I would have liked for the film to show us more of them.

Finally, there’s the bureaucrats in Washington making decisions for the rest of the world. Common is Rear Admiral Fisk, playing the role with a quiet confidence we see him exhibit in most of his acting roles. Linda Cardellini is the NSA senior analyst Jayne Norquist, sharing information and intelligence with Admiral Fisk and working to both find out what’s happening with the Russians and how to deal with the consequences. Norquist is a confident woman, sure of herself and her abilities. Cardellini isn’t given much to do except deliver information to guys in uniform, but she makes the most of her limited screen time. Gary Oldman is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Charles Donnegan, a man that likes to be in charge and is certain of his decisions. Oldman is probably the least served by the script that paints Donnegan as a man afraid of new ideas that quickly falls back on what he’s comfortable with when dealing with a challenge. A scene where Donnegan yells at Fisk when something tragic appears to have happened is a textbook example of scenery chewing from Oldman. The level of histrionics in his performance is almost laughable. I felt a bit bad for Oldman for having to put on such a display.

“Hunter Killer” is rated R for violence and some language. There are some beatings, stabbings and shootings in the film. There are some headshots with accompanying blood splatter. There is also a scene where a sailor is trapped in rising water under a torpedo. Foul language is scattered but includes some instances of the “F-bomb.”

With everything that’s wrong with “Hunter Killer,” I couldn’t help but like the film. The story moves at a quick pace and doesn’t feel like its running time of two hours. There is enough action and peril to keep your mind off the unlikelier aspects of the story. The characters are for the most part likable and, aside from the Russian bad guys, seem to be fairly grounded. All this combined to keep me interested in what would happen next, which characters were going to die and if our heroes could pull off an impossible rescue. In other words, the movie was entertaining, and I can’t ask for much more than that.

“Hunter Killer” gets four stars out of five.

This week I’ll be reviewing “Bohemian Rhapsody” for WIMZ.com.

Other films coming out this week that, if I have time, I may see and review are:

Nobody’s Fool (NSFW)—

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms—

Suspiria—

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