I’ll fully admit that I’m not a subscriber to the “so bad it’s good” school of terrible movies, but Hunter Killer might just slide into that category whether I want it to or not. Based on the novel Firing Point by George Wallace and Don Keith and directed by rising South African filmmaker Donovan Marsh, Hunter Killer places us in a scenario where the United States and Russia are unknowingly manipulated by a rouge Russian defense minister to the brink of World War III.
Unfolding like a souped-up Tom Clancy story, this ensemble piece is actually three movies in one: the first is the tale of untested submarine captain Joe Glass (Gerard Butler, because why not?) who is just given his command when events begin to take place in the waters of the Arctic Ocean. The crew is hesitant about his command, but he proves himself a worthy captain and they begin to work as a well-oiled machine before long. Another part of the story involves the military command center that is keeping close tabs on everything from the submarine to activity in Russia, particularly when it appears that both an American and U.S. sub are blown out of the water. Did they fire on each other, or did another military force take them out to make it look like the start of a war?
The team placed in charge of making major military decision is led by Gary Oldman as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Charles Donnegan, ranking officer John Fisk (Common) and NSA operative Jayne Norquist (Linda Cardellini). It would be remiss not to mention that the U.S. president in this particular alternate universe is one President Dover, played by Caroline Goodall. To the film’s credit, no mention of her gender happens at all.
The third part of Hunter Killer concerns what exactly is going on in Russia. When said defense minister, Admiral Dmitri Durov (Michael Gor) finally shows his hand, he kidnaps the visiting Russian president (Alexander Diachenko), using him as a pawn to get the Russian military to unknowingly begin attacks on American naval forces to begin a war. Technically, there is a fourth story about a small group of Navy SEALs, who are sent by RA Fisk to first to spy on the Russian base where Durov is entrenched, but before long, they are charged with rescuing the Russian president and bringing him to Glass’ nearby sub.
Another piece to this overly complicated puzzle is that when Glass arrives to the scene of the initial joint attack, he discovers that three crew members are still alive in the Russian sub, including the captain, Andropov (the late Michael Nyqvist, best known for being the male lead in the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films), who becomes key to the American’s mission. There is a lot of political posturing by some of the crew who don’t trust the Russians on their sub, but the film plays out like a strange plea for cooperation between the nations for the world’s greater good. I have nothing bad to say about that opinion, but a movie with this much hardware, explosions, and gunfire on display seems like an odd stage for it.
I’m not exactly sure what the timeline of Hunter Killer is supposed to be, but it feels like it happens in the space of just a few hours, which seems impossible. Director Marsh keeps things moving, stages some impressive actions sequences (I especially liked the SEALs who are so badass that they jump right into a nasty thunderstorm), and even seems to care to a degree about making the submarine experience feel authentic, as much as films like Crimson Tide or The Hunt for Red October feel (though this film is nowhere near as good as those, for the record). Even the usually hammy Butler keeps things relatively dialed down for this role, although he gets off a few great lines about action that Glass has seen in the past, to which the crew members nod their heads knowingly, without asking for any details. The underwater special effects are pretty solid as well, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the story is so outrageous and crowded with unnecessary elements.
For all the work Butler does on keeping an even keel, Oldman is shooting for the moon with his amped-up work, his first role since winning an Oscar earlier this year for Darkest Hour. Although I can’t quite give Hunter Killer a recommendation, it’s a closer call than I thought it might be. There are portions of the film I found enjoyable, while still slightly more I found intolerable. There are surprises and thrills alongside truly moronic bits of music. Overall, the silliness works against the movie and whatever its ultimate point might be, even if its only goal is to entertain. But if you do decide Butler is your spirit animal and you must see it, don’t say I didn’t warn you that the film might, in some ways, be highly watchable.
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