"One ping only."
I am a big fan of Tom Clancy's work, and his books are the only ones that I still purchase in hardcover. His work is so intricately captivating and complex; I marvel at how well planned his ideas are. The way he spins a conspiracy, the way he meticulously describes events, and the way he astutely details intelligence operations appeals to me at many levels. I don't think he writes enough, so I've even found myself enjoying "his" "Op-Center" and "Power Plays"—but not "Net Force"—lines of books.
Back when I was a senior at Miami University, "The Sum of All Fears" was just published and it was required reading in many political science classes at the time. At that point I had never read his stuff and was somewhat amazed to see a mass-market book as required reading in an institute of higher learning. That almost motivated me to pick up the book and give it a try, but my meager college budget didn't afford me a chance to splurge on a non-class book. Later that year, as my friends and I were driving down to the Keys for a little Spring Break fun, they played the audiotape of the book. I only listened to a few snippets as we went along, but it stuck with me and eventually motivated me to start reading Clancy. Of course, I started reading his works in chronological order of publication, so it took me some time to work through "The Hunt for Red October," "Red Storm Rising," "Patriot Games," "The Cardinal of the Kremlin," and "Clear and Present Danger" before I could get to "Fears." It was worth the wait. But I digress, as we're not talking about that book, which was terribly bastardized for the recent movie with B-Lo.
"The Hunt for Red October" was an astounding breakthrough for the author and an obvious no-brainer to become a film. Knowing how incredibly dense and complicated his tomes are, was there any hope that Clancy's premier novel would turn into a movie that would also be received with high accolades? In my opinion, The Hunt for Red October is the definitive Tom Clancy film. None of the subsequent films come close to capturing the raw essence of the novels.
Facts of the Case
British Intelligence has recently photographed the Soviet Union's latest foray into submarine technology: the Red October. A variation on their Typhoon class ships, there is something unique about the boat that motivates CIA Analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin, Pearl Harbor, Malice, The Shadow) to quickly return to the United States from London with the photographs. Ryan meets up with his mentor, Admiral James Greer (James Earl Jones, The Original Star Wars Trilogy), to discuss the unusual "doors" on the long axis of the boat.
The Red October has just launched on its maiden voyage with Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery, The Original James Bond, The Rock, Finding Forrester) at the helm. Captain Ramius is perhaps the Soviet Union's most prestigious commander and has taken the first run of each new class's vessel. A leader in the Soviet naval community, Ramius is about to disobey orders and lead the Soviet Union and the United States to the brink of war.
The submarine USS Dallas, under the command of Captain Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn, Apocalypse Now, The Right Stuff) is patrolling the waters off the Russian port city of Polyarnyy and begins tracking Red October. To their utter astonishment, the Soviet vessel "disappears" from their sonar instruments. The mystery of the "doors" in the photograph is revealed, as it's deduced that Red October has been installed with a magneto hydrodynamic drive, also known as a caterpillar, that is essentially silent. That silence makes Red October the perfect stealth weapon with the capability of approaching the United States without detection, allowing the Soviet Union to commence a crippling first assault on the United States.
Ryan finds himself in the middle of this explosive situation. The Joint Chiefs are all convinced that Ramius is a lone madman out to start World War III. With almost the entire Soviet fleet in pursuit of the Red October, there is scant evidence to the contrary. However, Ryan believes that Ramius is in fact attempting to defect.
And so begins a harrowing game of cat and mouse. Ryan is sent out to prove his theory and finds himself in the middle of the Atlantic trying to convince the US Navy that Red October is not a threat. Who will find Red October first? What are Ramius's true intentions? Is Ryan correct in his analysis of this volatile situation?
The Hunt for Red October was originally released on DVD back in 1998, yet another in the long line of insulting bare bones releases from Paramount. Many times I'd been tempted to pick up the disc, but something always held me back. Fortunately, with the resurgence in popularity in the world of Tom Clancy, Paramount has seen fit to reissue a couple of the original Jack Ryan films with anamorphic video, new DTS audio tracks, and some much-deserved bonus materials.
While my favorite Tom Clancy novel is "Debt of Honor," which is so wildly complex and detailed that it'll never see a movie screen, The Hunt for Red October is definitely my favorite Clancy film. Not only is it an excellent and highly faithful (though not perfect) adaptation of the book, it's a great movie on its own merits. Filled with a multitude of outstanding actors—including Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, James Earl Jones, Sam Neill, Tim Curry, Stellan Skarsgård, Jeffrey Jones, and Fred Dalton all giving inspired performances—Red October is a taut, gripping, nail biting adventure. Thanks to brilliant direction by John McTiernan (Die Hard, Predator, The 13th Warrior) and some masterful cinematography by Jan de Bont (Speed, Twister), Red October is one of the best action thrillers around.
But McTiernan has a way of expanding the boundaries of typical action fare. With his previous film, Die Hard, McTiernan reformed the entire action genre and created a groundwork that defined the big budget action movie for the next decade. For years, every subsequent action film was compared to McTiernan's work, and usually found wanting. With his follow-up in Red October, McTiernan brought a new level of suspense, pacing, and intelligence to the venue, and helped breathe life back into the veritable submarine film as well. In working to translate Clancy's dense work to the big screen, McTiernan maintained as many of the intricacies of the book as possible. Seeing that Clancy is very meticulous in his plotting, this encouraged McTiernan to rely on acting, plot, character development, pacing, and atmosphere first. When possible, action scenes were then inserted only to enhance the film. These days, it's usually explosions first and maybe a plot later. Would today's be audiences patient enough to follow a fairly complicated plot that unfolds at a measured pace, as done in Red October?
How "special" is this new release? Well, Paramount is certainly exaggerating in this label, as this release still barely attains the level of most current releases by other studios. Paramount continues to not fully understand the desires of the DVD community. Still, how much of an improvement is this over the original disc? I've never seen the original DVD, so I cannot compare the differences, if any, in the video transfer. Most significant is that this release now contains an anamorphic widescreen transfer. Aside from that, as far as I've been able to ascertain, the video in this version is the same as before. With that, I was a bit concerned during the first fifteen minutes of the film. As the movie is thirteen years old, its age was quite apparent on my TV. The image was soft with too much grain. However, the picture radically improved as we went along, losing most of the softness and the grain. The colors were accurate and nicely hued, with respectable saturation. Unfortunately, the biggest stumbling blocks are the underwater sub shots. In almost all cases, I found them to be too dark, with a lack of definition in the blacks. It was all murky and often difficult to tell what was going on. That could be the way the movie was created, but I think it's darker than it should be. Luckily, that's about as bad as it gets, as there is no edge enhancement, bleed, artifacting, or pixelization. Before moving on, I'd like to mention the chapter stops, or lack thereof. In this case, there are only thirteen breaks for a movie that runs solidly over two hours; that's simply not enough. On the audio front, you get the original 5.1 Dolby Digital mix and a brand new 6.0 DTS track. Flipping between the two, I found the DTS to be a marked improvement over the original. Everything is so much better: more range, more dynamics, more depth, more clarity, more directionals. If you have a DTS decoder, you will be very impressed with the track. However, this too isn't perfect as, in those same fifteen minutes I mentioned before, the dialogue is a bit muddled. Also, during intense action sequences, the music and sound effects often "overpower" the experience—meaning, you've comfortably listened to the movie then suddenly "bam," it's very, very loud. In these few instances, I think they lost balance.
In addition to the theatrical trailer, there are two additional features. The first is an audio commentary by John McTiernan. If any of you have previously listened to one of his tracks, you'll know that it is a laborious task. The man is so calm, so mellow, so monotone, that it's quite the effort to make it through an entire track. In fact, except for this one, I've never had the tenacity to finish one of his commentaries, as it's such a somnambulistic experience. While the man sometimes does say a few interesting things, it's mostly a dull piece. In the beginning, there are some very large gaps where he's simply watching the movie. Fortunately those do fade as we progress, but he still fails to impart anything truly fascinating. Many times I would find myself thinking, "Well, I wish he would talk about this." Not once did he work with me and talk about "that." There are so many more details he could have and should have shared; his commentary track is very disappointing. As such, I have misgivings about giving any of his other tracks another chance. McTiernan must have little faith in the intelligence of the public (which is somewhat understandable seeing what drivel is out there and what makes the most money), for in many instances, he kept wondering if the film made sense and apologized if it didn't. In each case, I say he did a suitable job and had no need to apologize. Faring much better is the other bonus item, a 28-minute featurette titled "Beneath the Surface." Here you get an informative and entertaining look at the making of the film. You get a nice mix of behind-the-scenes footage and some new interviews—and an old one from Sean Connery—detailing the process of putting this intricate film together. I enjoyed the featurette and would have enjoyed more, much more. And, much to my surprise, not being a big fan of Alec Baldwin, my appreciation for him rose a few ticks after hearing the praise lauded upon him by his coworkers.
Speaking of Mr. Baldwin, why did he refuse to do any other Jack Ryan films? As much as I love Harrison Ford, I'm finally able to admit that Baldwin would have been better in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. It's a shame he passed on this golden opportunity.
And, seeing how Star Trek is everywhere (in my world, at least), Gates McFadden must be beside herself as she never made it back into another Clancy film. Gates, who played Dr. Beverly Crusher on TNG, makes a one-minute cameo as Ryan's wife, Caroline. I bet she wishes Baldwin would have come back, and then maybe she would have been asked back as well.
Lastly, for those of you who are just dying to know, here's my ranking of the Clancy films, from best to worst: Red October, Patriot Games, The Sum of All Fears, and Clear and Present Danger.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As with most books that are turned into movies, Red October takes excessive liberties with the material in the book. What happened to the British Fleet and the HMS Invincible? How did Ryan end up on the Dallas? Where was the Ethan Allen?
Movies are meant to honestly portray the complete material of the author, and events should not be changed to suit the director's fancy. When items are omitted and changed, the movie will never be as good as the book. In this case, you thus have a movie that proceeds at a snail's pace and fails to adequately explain all of the terminology and technology of the plot. A leaner script with more action is needed to make this movie memorable and enjoyable.
The Hunt for Red October is an all-around excellent film, filled with a great script, a beautiful ensemble set of quality actors, and smart direction. If you haven't seen this film, it's a definite rental. For those of you who don't own it, this release is highly recommended as a purchase for your shelves. The bigger quandary is for those of you who already own the previous version. Is it worth a double-dip or not? If you have a widescreen TV and/or DTS capable equipment, then this new disc with the anamorphic transfer and superior DTS audio track makes it worthy of a second purchase. The bonus features are not that spectacular and should not be a significant factor in your decision. If you do decide to encourage Paramount with a double-dip, it won't hurt you too much, as you'll be able to pick this one up for less than fifteen dollars.
Paramount is sentenced to another twelve months of time for their continued adherence to the bare bones release coupled with the inevitable double-dip. Time can be reduced if this annoying policy is abandoned and a formal apology is issued.
The film itself is acquitted of all charges.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director John McTiernan
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