WHAT IT'S ABOUT:After a coup removes the controversial Russian president, Zakarin, from power, a submarine crew, captained by the newly promoted Captain Joe Glass, must infiltrate Russian waters to rescue President Zakarin and the team of Navy Seals tasked with getting Zakarin out of the clutches of his captors. All that lies between their success and failure is a full-on war between the USA and Russia and a nuclear World War III.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Playing out like an old-fashioned Cold-War/submarine thriller, Hunter Killer may pay lip-service to the current geopolitical climate (or, at least, since it was clearly made a few years ago, what the current geopolitical climate would look like under Hilary Clinton) but with just a tweak or two, it could easily have come out around the same time as Crimson Tide or even the Hunt For Red October. This is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness.
The film does overstep its mark on occasion, as for example the way it splits its time between the solid submarine stuff and the rather less impressive land-based shoot-outs, which may give the film more action set pieces but does so at the expense of the claustrophobic, broiling tension that comes with the genre. Also, at a hair over two-hours, it is about thirty minutes too long, sacrificing tightness for unnecessary plot and an overdrawn action sequence towards the end of the film.
These flaws don’t really hurt the film, however, as fans of the genre probably won’t see this as the next Das Boot but will enjoy the film for basically doing what it set out to do – which is something that they just don’t see very often. The problem is that South African director, Donovan Marsh (best known, probably, for the first two Spud films) and his frequent cinematographer, Tom Marais (also South African, also largely known for South African film and TV) may punch well above their weight with a very good looking, efficiently directed genre picture, but neither they nor scriptwriters, Arne Schmidt and Jamie Moss (working off the novel Firing Point by George Wallace and Don Keith) are able to elevate the material beyond solidly middle of the road.
And yet, though Hunter Killer won’t stay in the memory long and won’t convert anyone not already a fan of submarine thrillers, there is something to be said for a film that just does what it says on the proverbial tin. It doesn’t do it with any real originality and something this silly could do with a bit more of a sense of humour but if you like this sort of thing – and I have something of a soft spot for it after loving Crimson Tide as a kid – you will probably like Hunter Killer. Damning with faint praise? Well, considering how many genre films don’t do even their most basic due diligence, “basic competence” is higher praise than it may seem at first.
It’s also undeniably boosted by Gerard Butler’s best performance in ages. He has never quite been able to convert the likeable persona that he brings to interviews and public appearances into particularly likeable action-film roles in the way that folks like Jason Statham and the Rock do with apparent ease but, by toning things way down here, his Captain Joe Glass becomes a reserved but highly sympathetic and engaging screen presence. It seems that for Butler less really is a whole lot more. Though, of course, to keep the karmic balance, Butler’s high point is matched by a wasted Linda Cardellini and a phoned in performance by Gary Oldman who seems as confused by his presence in this movie as the rest of us are.
If there is one reason to see Hunter Killer beyond its impressive central performance and really very solid genre trappings, it’s that it is the second last film to feature Michael Nyqvist, the respected Scandinavian actor who brought a real sense of presence to even the lamest project and who died far too young last year at the age of fifty-eight. He looks sickly throughout the film – fittingly so when you consider the specifics of his role – as the cancer that would ultimately kill him was clearly taking its toll here but, as the Russian counterpoint to Butler’s character, he turns in a very fine next-to-last performance.
It may not be the greatest send-off imaginable but there is something to be said for something this solid and unpretentious to be the second-to-last film of someone known more for bringing quite intensity to his roles than any sort of ostentatious grandstanding.