Hopelessly predictable, but not altogether lacking in overall entertainment value, Hunter Killer mashes up no less than three different kinds of militaristic thrillers into a single overly familiar package. It’s primarily a submarine picture, which I’ll say up front is my least favourite kind of military yarn, but I’ll get back to that in a minute. Hunter Killer is also a story about ground troops on a covert mission behind enemy lines. When it’s neither of those kinds films, Hunter Killer shifts focus to high ranking military and government suits yelling at each other in busy looking control centres. There’s simultaneously a ton going on in Hunter Killer and very little worth remembering. It’s a flavourless, unoriginal, but occasionally charming bit of suspense in the tenor of a Tom Clancy knock-off.
Somewhere in the Barents Sea, an American submarine has gone missing and is presumed sunk after a perceived altercation with an aggressive Russian vessel. The Russians claim to have no knowledge of the incident, so the Americans call upon untested naval captain Joe Glass (Gerard Butler) to lead a sub into enemy waters for answers. Unsure if the snafu was a misunderstanding, malfunction, or an act of war, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Gary Oldman) back in Washington sends a four man Navy SEAL team – led by a tough talking grunt played by Toby Stephens – into Russia for some covert answers. The CJCS constantly debates the mission parameters and importance with a concerned Rear Admiral (Common) and a helpful NSA operative (Linda Cardellini), but half a world away and deep beneath the ocean’s surface, Joe Glass is about to realize that nothing about his situation is quite what it seems. After rescuing an equally confused Russian submarine captain (the late Michael Nyqvist, in one of his final roles) and two other soldiers from an equally attacked vessel, it becomes apparent that Glass and his crew have stumbled upon a planned coup to overthrow the foreign government.
I’d venture a guess that approximately 75% of Hunter Killer revolves around the stuff on the submarine, 15% on the ground with the SEAL squad, and 10% in the war room. No matter how much screen time each of these overlapping stories is allotted in this adaptation of the novel Firing Point from authors George Wallace and Don Keith by screenwriters Arne Schmidt (Chain Reaction) and Jamie Moss (the Americanized Ghost in the Shell remake, Street Kings), there’ll be no shortage of openly shrug-worthy military cliches trotted out in service of making Hunter Killer feel as safe, straightforward, streamlined, and unexceptional as possible.
I’m compelled to grade Hunter Killer almost as if it were three separate movies, since each section has its own specific set of tropes, positives, and negatives worth addressing, but if you’re not that interested in those details, just stop reading the review now and know that the entirety of the motion picture isn’t particularly great. Even on their own merits, all three storylines are mediocre. You’ll barely remember any of this once the credits are done rolling, and what you do remember you’ll probably get confused with any other film to ever take place aboard a submarine.
The underwater portion of Hunter Killer (which is the name of the type of craft Glass has been put in charge of) is marred almost instantly by cheap looking CGI submarines and glaciers that speak volumes about the film’s budget. Every bit of production design looks cut rate, economical, and a best case scenario for a movie with major stars and tightened purse strings. None of the film’s three overlapping threads looks spectacular, but when a story revolves around underwater battles and cat and mouse games, one would hope all of the film’s budget would be diverted towards making that portion of the movie look the best. They might’ve actually done that with Hunter Killer, but it still looks terrible, at one point even trotting out obviously repurposed stock footage that no one’s bothering to mask as anything else. The only thing more off putting than the cut-rate staging of Hunter Killer is watching as a bunch of obviously non-Russian actors attempt inconsistent accents that range from caricature to non-existent.
I mentioned before that I don’t like submarine movies very much. (No, not even Crimson Tide or The Hunt for Red October.) They’re incredibly dull places to set a thrilling or adventurous story, and there are only a finite number of things that can happen in such a craft. While some films like Das Boot and U-571 were able to do clever things within the claustrophobic confines of such a craft, every other film to ever take place on a submarine always succumbs to the same plot points time and time again.
Tensions will run high because the crew is so far away from the people giving orders. There will be a challenge to the captain’s leadership. At some point there ship will start taking on water after being hit or getting into an accident. There will be lots of shots of brave men and women working frantically to patch up holes in the sub. There will be a point where the ship and everyone on board will have to go absolutely quiet to avoid getting detected by the enemy. There will be a near miss with some torpedos. They’ll have to plunge to dangerous depths to save their lives. People will look and listen with no small amount of worry when ominous noises start popping up on the sonar or as soon as a missile has locked onto their location. Noble sacrifices will be made. Games of chicken will be played. The finale will be timed to either a literal or metaphorical ticking clock. For me, thrillers aboard submarines are the ultimate “if you’ve seen one (even a really good one), you’ve seen ‘em all” proposition. Do all of the things I listed above happen in Hunter Killer? You betcha, but at least the writers and South African director Donovan Marsh wait until the film’s halfway point to give into the easiest stuff entirely. The downside to holding these cliches back is that Hunter Killer initially tricks viewers into thinking this might be one of the rare sub flicks to do something different. Those hopes are killed swiftly and mercilessly.
At least the first hour of Hunter Killer is a rather novel take on a submarine thriller. Marsh does a nice job conveying the sense of confusion that surrounds the mission’s early stages. That all goes out the window the second Joe Glass pieces everything together about forty minutes in, but it’s more interesting to watch the crew of the USS Arkansas trying to piece together what happened to their fallen brothers and make informed decisions about their next moves. In the early going, Marsh shows greater interest in procedural details and nods to military superstitions, which adds a refreshing layer of authenticity that will be sustained even when the story simply gives up and looks for the easiest way out.
Butler (who also produces and for whom Hunter Killer has been a passion project for some time now) matches the restrained and paranoid tone of the film’s early moments throughout, so even though the film grows more cliched and silly as it goes along, the leading man maintains the same level of composure and poise. He’s probably taking this more seriously than he has to, but there’s a lot to admire in his portrayal of a working man captain who rose his way through the military ranks via on the job experience instead of heading straight to Annapolis and hitting the books. Outside of a clunkily written introductory speech to his crew, Butler’s leader feels unpretentiously in line with some of Hunter Killer’s stronger and subtler storytelling beats.
There’s plenty of action to be found in the sequences involving the covert SEAL team (including a ludicrous one where enemy troops unload an entire war’s worth of ammo into an open space, but still can’t manage to hit heroes who aren’t even hiding behind anything), but none of them are particularly pulse quickening, and all of these moments seem to exist in a vacuum of their own. Their storyline escalates quickly and never deviates into intriguing territory. They’re blunt force objects who seem to have been added simply because people can’t shoot at each other with guns in offices or aboard submarines without serious consequences. Everyone in the unit talks like a gung-ho, tough guy with a death wish, and all of them are interchangeable. They serve a purpose to the story, but somehow end up with even more implausible and cliched material than their oceanbound counterparts.
Still, they fare better than the poor saps stuck working back at “the Pentagon,” which I put in quotations because the American war room set looks the exact same as the enemy war room, but with different set decoration on the walls. Here, two very capable actors – and Common, who always tries hard, but has yet to find a comfortable on screen role – are given some of the most thankless roles of the year. I can’t even tell you what the characters in the war room even did to help further the plot of the movie. Say what one might about the SEAL team feeling tacked on; at least they had something to do with the plot.
I guess Cardellini fares the best of the three supporting cast members in Hunter Killer’s stateside sequences. She gets to provide some key exposition and at one point turns on some secret NSA satellites that barely help anything along at all. Common doesn’t have much more to do than to look worried all the time, so he might as well be played by a Muppet or a coat rack. All Oscar winner Oldman has to do is show up, shout at the top of his lungs about things every character in the room has already thought about, and then go home to collect a paycheque. He might have recently won a major acting prize, but lets not forget that he’s fully capable of delivering lazy, shouty work in B and C grade potboilers, and this is a perfect example of Oldman barely caring about anything he has to do. He’s only working hard enough to not embarrass himself or those around him. If they weren’t cut back to so frequently during the second of the film’s major climaxes (which comes after an admittedly well integrated false ending), every time these characters appear on screen would be opportune times for people to use the bathroom or pop out to make a quick phone call to the babysitter.
I think I’ve said more about Hunter Killer than any other film critic probably ever will, so if you didn’t leave when I told you to, I thank you for sticking through it. It’s the rare example of a film that’s fun to write about, but not necessarily fun to watch. Its staunch, curiously apolitical approach leaves little to talk about on a cultural level, and the craft and creative decisions made are sometimes praiseworthy and sometimes backwards. While the writers of Hunter Killer have nothing really to say outside of listing off a bunch of cliches they enjoy, writing about the film at least gave me a chance to get a few things off my chest. In a strange way, it might be one of my favourite films to revolve around a submarine crew sent on a dangerous mission. At least I thought about Hunter Killer more than most of its underwater brethren. I also probably thought about it more than the people who actually made it.
Hunter Killer opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, October 26, 2018.
Check out the trailer for Hunter Killer:
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