It may not be as useless as a screen door on a submarine, but “Hunter Killer” doesn’t come close to threatening “The Hunt for Red October’s” status as the stuffed-bear prize-holder for top sub thriller, either.
South African director Donovan Marsh isn’t the steadiest at the helm with this latest entry into the submerged subgenre of military dramas, but he and his stalwart cast manage to make an engaging if ultimately forgettable undersea adventure.
Based on the 2012 novel “Firing Point” by Don Keith and George Wallace, “Hunter Killer” stars Gerard Butler (“300”) as blue-collar submarine commander Joe Glass, who accepts the captaincy of the USS Arkansas from Rear Admiral John Fisk (a woefully miscast Common), who is looking to dispatch a trustworthy soul to investigate the disappearance of another U.S. sub near Russian waters. Capt. Glass, his by-the-book executive officer (Carter MacIntyre) and the rest of the wide-eyed yet capable crew sail into a possible war-starting scenario when they discover two Russian subs on their search – one, a sabotaged sunken vessel and the other well-hidden and ready to blow the Arkansas out of the water
After saving the Russian Capt. Andropov (the late Michael Nyqvist) from the damaged sub, Glass and his crew are recruited for another Russian rescue mission: secretly saving the diplomatic President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko) from a coup led by his Boris Badenov-type Defense Minister (Michael Gor), who is eager to go to war with the Americans.
A highly trained quartet of elite soldiers, led by Bill Beaman (English actor Toby Stephens, whose idea of an Alabama drawl is almost as convincing as Sean Connery’s Scottish brogue as a Russian accent in “Red October”), is tasked with doing the actual liberating of the President Zakarin from the Russian naval base where he’s being held hostage.
Along with Fisk, the people giving the orders in this unlikely yet engaging scenario are saber-rattling Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Charles Donnegan (Gary Oldman) and canny National Security Agency senior analyst Jayne Norquist (Linda Cardellini, who is practically the only woman in this picture except for Sarah Middleton as a little-used communications officer who is essentially the Lt. Uhura of the USS Arkansas).
Marsh and screenwriters Arne Schmidt and Jamie Moss manage to effectively tighten the screws – literally in at least one case – on the cinematic tension, and they achieve an intense authenticity inside the USS Arkansas, with its lived-in bunks and battle stations that get violently rattled as torpedoes go off. The scenes of the subs’ exteriors too often look like the models they undoubtedly are.
Although like Beaman brags, “Hunter Killer” doesn’t seem to know much about geopolitics, it’s also nice in the age of Russian Twitter bots and election meddling to see a depiction of U.S.-Russian relationships that isn’t sinking fast.