Invisible. Silent. Stolen.
The first Tom Clancy novel to make it to the big screen, The Hunt for Red October delivers a top-notch techno-thriller with another collection of fine actors. Unfortunately, Paramount did not see fit to lavish any attention upon this sadly neglected disc.
Not that many years ago, Tom Clancy was a struggling insurance salesman in Maryland who had a strong interest in all things military. In the time he could spare from his business, he sat down at his typewriter and wrote The Hunt for Red October. With a talent for accurately portraying complicated military matters but making it readable for the average consumer, Tom Clancy made a huge splash with this novel, paving the way for a long series of always long, always gripping novels that practically invented the "techno-thriller" genre.
In terms of the Clancy novels that have been adapted to the big screen, I think that The Hunt for Red October is closest to the novel in substance and in terms of its main character, Jack Ryan. The story is very similar, merely severely edited in certain areas to keep the movie moving without being a miniseries in length. Alec Baldwin is a fairly youthful Jack Ryan, more in line with the book than Harrison Ford. Also, Alec Baldwin does a better job in showing Jack Ryan as being very ill at ease with making the jump from analysis in a cozy cubicle to real, deadly work out in the field.
For those of you who may not have read the book, the story opens with the Red October, a nuclear ballistic missile submarine in the Soviet Navy, making its way out to sea, guided by Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) and his Executive Officer, Commander Vasily Borodin (Sam Neill). At the same time many miles away, Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) says a fond farewell to his family and flies off to a meeting with Admiral James Greer (James Earl Jones), Deputy Director at the CIA, to discuss a new Soviet missile submarine, namely the Red October!
Concerns are heightened when a consultant, Skip Tyler (Jeffrey Jones), announces that the Red October has likely been fitted with a super-silent propulsion system (a "caterpillar" drive) that would allow it to approach the U.S. coast undetected and launch nuclear missiles with almost no warning. Meanwhile, aboard the Red October, Captain Ramius meets with Political Officer Ivan Putin (Peter Firth) to review their orders, but instead Ramius kills Putin with his own hands (but wisely makes it look like an accident) and substitutes his own, decidedly different, orders. After a stirring speech to the crew, Ramius orders the "caterpillar" drive engaged, and promptly vanishes right out from under the sonar noses of the USS Dallas, a U.S. submarine that had been monitoring the movements of the Red October.
Things get very hairy very quickly when a huge chunk of the Soviet surface and submarine forces suddenly flood into the Atlantic in a big hurry with orders to locate and sink the Red October. In dramatic fashion, Jack convinces the National Security Advisor, Jeffrey Pelt (Richard Jordan), that Ramius may be intending to defect. Much to Jack's dismay, he is reluctantly convinced to go into the field and coordinate with the U.S. Navy's Atlantic Fleet commander to see that if Ramius wishes to defect, that he be helped to do so.
Back aboard the Red October, we learn that with the exception of the nervous Dr. Petrov (Tim Curry), the officers of the Red October, led by Captain Ramius, have all along been conspiring to defect to the United States. However, the officers are aghast to learn that Captain Ramius had sent a letter to his patron, Admiral Padorin (Peter Zinner), announcing his plans to defect, thus ensuring that there would be no turning back. The reception that Jack Ryan gets upon his arrival aboard the carrier USS Enterprise is none too warm either. Admiral Painter (Senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn.) and Captain Charlie Davenport (Daniel Davis) are highly skeptical of Ryan's defection theory, which only heightens Ryan's fatigue and unease.
The Red October has been merrily sneaking along the bottom of the Atlantic, until an unknown saboteur disables the "caterpillar" drive. No longer silent, the Red October is hunted by Soviet anti-submarine forces, escaping destruction by only the narrowest of margins. Meanwhile, aboard the USS Dallas, sonar wunderkind Seaman Jones (Courtney B. Vance) tracks the Red October down, to the great glee of his commander, Captain Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn), who figures he knows where his prey is headed. The USS Dallas sprints to that spot, and they settle down to await the arrival of Red October.
Jack learns that the USS Dallas is tracking the Red October, and prevails upon Captain Davenport to allow Jack to attempt a highly risky flight to transfer to the Dallas via helicopter. Jack knows that politicians are getting very nervous, and are very likely to simply order the Red October sunk rather than take any risks. The flight is indeed highly dangerous, and Jack gets aboard the USS Dallas in a most hazardous fashion. Once aboard, Jack learns that such an order has indeed been given, and takes great personal risk to persuade Captain Mancuso to disregard his orders and make contact with Captain Ramius.
A delicate dance begins, where Captain Mancuso and Captain Ramius arrange for a defection to take place where the crew of the Red October get out unharmed but unaware that a defection had even occurred. Matters go as planned, until a jealous former student of Ramius', Captain Tupolev (Stellan Skarsgård) crashes the party with his own Alfa-class Soviet attack submarine. The final scene is a tense, deadly game of cat and mouse between the American and two Soviet submarines, where someone won't be leaving alive!
With this group of actors, it is hard to go wrong. As noted above, Alec Baldwin does a commendable job with the passionately determined, but uncomfortable and reluctant field operative. Sean Connery is a majestic and forceful Russian submarine captain, a contrast with Scott Glenn's low-key but fiercely professional American submariner. Sam Neill is delightfully smooth as Ramius' loyal but concerned second in command. The rest of the cast is similarly good, and I can't fault any performance. When compared to your typical action flick, this is very good acting.
The story is well paced, delivering a substantial amount of exposition but in edible portions, with numerous changes in location to keep us interested and on our toes. This is not a slam-bam continuous action movie either, instead using quiet interludes to allow the audience to relax before hitting them between the eyes with another crisis.
The video is probably reused from one of the previous laserdisc releases, albeit this time presented in the proper theatrical aspect ratio. As this is an early release from Paramount, it is of course a non-anamorphic letterbox transfer, which is a double pity. Not only would current and future widescreen TV users have benefited from an anamorphic transfer, but I suspect that a new transfer could have produced a truly stunning picture. Unfortunately, as with the previously reviewed Patriot Games, the video of The Hunt for Red October is marred by significant graininess and/or digital noise in a number of early scenes, where it is painfully obvious.
However, once you are about fifteen minutes into the film, the image cleans up noticeably and ranges from the tolerable to the quite nice. Flesh tones are okay, but a bit pale at times, and the video is mostly free of dirt and blemishes. Sharpness is quite good overall, as long as you don't count the numerous underwater shots of the submarines (which tend to be grainy and indistinct shapes anyway). Colors are reasonably saturated, but due to the age of the film and limited palette in use, the eye candy quotient is limited. Perhaps another sign of this transfer's age is the shimmering caused by excessive digital "enhancement" that I was able to spot in a few scenes.
Oddly typical for these early Paramount releases, the audio is generally of superior quality. Dialogue is crisp and clear (even when in the background), the channels properly separated, and even with my limited speaker setup I was impressed at the feeling of being in the center of the action on screen. The subwoofer is used to anchor musical elements and sound effects, but without being as noticeable or as impressive as with more modern sound mixes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Much worse than the flaws of the non-anamorphic video transfer is the typical Paramount lack of extras. Aside from a properly 2.35:1 letterboxed trailer, that's it! The menus are static and minimal, but at least we get the preferred Amaray keep case.
I suspect that this is not going to be a film that's very popular with girlfriends or wives, partly due to the typical appeal of a Clancy story and partly because there are scant female characters, and those few generally disappear as quickly as they appear. I also would not recommend this film to anyone inclined to be overly picky. Yes, the model used for the Red October looks fairly poor above water, and yes, the accents used by many of the Russian sailors are certainly not Russian (would you believe a Russian captain with a Scottish acccent?), and yes, Seaman Jones doesn't wear the right rank insignia, etcetera, but so what? Use a little suspension of disbelief, and you'll enjoy the movie.
A pleasant, well-paced action/adventure movie, The Hunt for Red October will give you solid entertainment value. However, I would not recommend a purchase of this pricey disc ($30), given the lack of extras and deficiencies in the transfer, unless you are also a Clancy fanatic and/or you find a good deal online.
The movie is acquitted, but Paramount is yet again guilty of slapping together a disc of limited quality and excessive price. Any studio demonstrating this sort of repeated indifference ought to be forced to license their titles to someone who would care enough to do the job right the first time.
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