Paramount // 1990 // 135 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 8th, 2008
Invisible. Silent. Stolen.
"It reminds me of the heady days of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin when the world trembled at the sound of our rockets. Now they will tremble again -- at the sound of our silence. The order is: engage the silent drive." -- Captain Ramius
It's the mid-1980s, and the United States is still nervously keeping an eye on Russia. They've just learned of a Soviet submarine that is making them particularly uneasy. The sub is called "The Red October." It is large, dangerous, and sturdy. Most important, it is equipped a "Caterpillar drive," technology that makes the sub invisible to sonar. The captain of the sub is a man named Ramius (Sean Connery, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), a very intelligent and mysterious individual. CIA Analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock) has been studying Ramius for quite some time and is assigned to investigate the mission of The Red October. The CIA quickly becomes convinced that Ramius is preparing to launch a nuclear attack on America, but Ryan isn't so sure. Can the mystery be solved before disaster strikes?
John McTiernan's cinematic adaptation of Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October is not a film of action, but a film of ideas. If the film had been made today, one suspects that there would been plenty of torpedo attacks, dangerous equipment malfunctions that put the entire submarine crew at risk, and maybe a gunfight or two. Actually, this film also contains all of those elements, but they are side items, not the main course. The Hunt For Red October is far more interested in telling us a story that centers on thoughtful discussions of politics, technology, and life.
Though the film takes some considerable detours from Clancy's popular novel, it is most assuredly the closest to the spirit of Clancy's work of all the Clancy films. Later films about Jack Ryan would take the character into action movie territory, but this film keeps the character firmly planted in the role of CIA Analyst. Ryan is an exceptionally interesting protagonist for a Hollywood blockbuster, as he actually uses his brain rather than his body to solve problems and communicate with others.
There is a particularly interesting puzzle at the center of Red October: Is Captain Ramius a madman bent on vengeance or simply a good man attempting to defect to the United States? The film keeps both possibilities wide open. There is a scene in which an officer on the Russian sub questions whether Ramius is on an official mission. This officer is also the man who holds one of two keys that would activate the nuclear missiles on board (Ramius has the second key). Ramius then murders the officer, and takes the key. This would suggest that Ramius was attempting to get control of the nukes, right? Or was he simply taking one life in order to prevent his secret mission of defection from being ruined?
The film reveals the answer to this question about halfway through the film, but I will not reveal it to you here. From there, McTiernan provides a very compelling multi-angle approach to the situation. The film has an expansive cast of characters, and McTiernan gives them all a chance to step into the spotlight at some point. There's a group of American politicians back in Washington, a group of military men on an American submarine, a group of Russians on The Red October, a group of politicians back in Russia, and a group of military men on a Russian sub attempting to find the Red October. In the middle of all of this is Jack Ryan, moving from place to place as quickly as possible in an attempt to uncover the truth and resolve the situation.
However, in this film Ryan is not the center of attention. He is merely an intelligent guide for the audience. Alec Baldwin's acting is fine, but the key performance comes from Sean Connery as Ramius. Connery has been in a lot of bad films in his post-Bond years, which is a shame when you consider what he can do with an interesting character like this one. Ramius is a very compelling individual, quietly philosophical at one moment and ferociously intense the next. He certainly doesn't have much of a Russian accent, but that doesn't matter. He gets the character right. The same applies to co-stars Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) and Tim Curry (Muppet Treasure Island), who also play Russians. On the American side, there are some fine supporting turns from James Earl Jones (Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins), Fred Thompson (Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World), and particularly Scott Glenn (Silence of the Lambs). The film runs 135 minutes and earns that length by providing consistently absorbing and thoughtful scenes of dialogue between these very capable actors. These characters are human beings, not standard-issue military/political stereotypes. I'm pleased that the issues being presented here proved so engaging that they informed the tone of subsequent submarine dramas such as Crimson Tide and the overlooked K-19: The Widowmaker.
Technology-driven films often tend to date poorly, but that is not the case with this film. Here, the technology only works toward giving us an accurate portrait of what life on a submarine might have been like in the mid-1980s. The film itself is not centered on hi-tech gadgets and gizmos, but on timeless military and philosophical concepts. The set and costume design seems quite impressively authentic. There's also a very solid score from composer Basil Poledouris, highlighted by a powerful Russian anthem that appears during the film's opening sequence.
The hi-def transfer is somewhat mediocre. While a few sequences are sharp and attractive, the majority of the film looks pretty grainy, and there are also some flecks and scratches. Sound is solid enough, with the only complaint being that dialogue is just a tad low on occasion. As for extras, there's a decent commentary with McTiernan, a solid half-hour featurette on the making of the film, and a trailer.
Jack Ryan's family life has always played a somewhat important element in these stories, but that is not the case here. We see his daughter very briefly, and hear his wife mentioned, but this is pretty much a solo outing for Jack Ryan. That's a little disappointing, but probably necessary to keep the film from being any longer than it all ready is without sacrificing crucial details.
This is an intelligent and exceptional submarine movie, ranking as one of the very best films of its kind. The hi-def transfer doesn't really offer enough to merit an upgrade from DVD, but the film itself is well worth checking out in either format.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.20:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Commentary w/John McTiernan
* "Beneath the Surface"