Submarine thrillers have an inherent tension to them. There is something about a group of characters in an enclosed space playing what amounts to a high stakes chess match with an opposing force that is uniquely suspenseful. The military thriller Hunter Killer understands that, but not much else. The scenes involving the crew of the titular submarine trying to avoid detection or evade torpedoes are tense and compelling. Every other scene, focusing on the plot or the characters, is neither of those things. It is a big, dumb, overlong action movie that thinks it is smart and well-paced.
The complicated setup is this: a US sub goes missing in Russian waters. Another US sub is sent to investigate. Of course, this sub just lost its commanding officer and gets assigned a new one who does things his own way. Meanwhile, a covert ground team goes on a mission into Russia to figure out what is going on over there. Things get even denser with double-crosses and unlikely allies. None of this ever becomes interesting.
Hunter Killer (based on the 2012 novel “Firing Point” by Don Keith and George Wallace) does absolutely nothing with its large and fairly talented cast. They are not playing characters; they are playing plot points. No one gets an insightful moment or backstory or anything that could turn them into individuals. All of the dialogue is used to build to the action scenes, which would be okay if the story was good. But it is not. The life and death sequences on the sub, where the captain has to make major decisions that will determine the fates of the men on board, are generally well done. Too bad the movie does not spend all of its time there.
Hunter Killer (112 minutes without the end credits) is best when it is quiet, which is not often. When the entire submarine crew is metaphorically holding its breath as the captain takes huge risks, it is actually suspenseful. When officers in DC are arguing about what to do next, it is really boring. The subplot featuring the special ops unit in Russia does not have much to offer either.
Amazingly, considering the fact that I am not usually a fan of his work, the stuff I enjoyed the most involved Gerard Butler as the new captain. His heroic stoicism comes in handy here. Like everyone else, he mainly barks orders and stares intensely at monitors. However, it works better for him than it does for Common, Linda Cardellini or Gary Oldman who are given a lot of screen time despite their characters having little to say or do.
I am certainly no filmmaker, but this feels like the type of movie that would have benefited from being tighter and more claustrophobic. Widening the scope to include government officials and political turmoil only serves to water down the drama. The elements that make it, maybe not different, but at least not as familiar, are shoved off to the side far too much.
Hunter Killer is not good. It is not in the class of The Hunt for Red October, Run Silent, Run Deep or even Crimson Tide as far as submarine movies go. It is a very mildly diverting, brainless thriller that seems out of place being released in late October, where it will soon be surrounded in multiplexes by awards-bait and family adventures. I guess it is counter-programming, but you are better off waiting to watch it at home where you can change the channel or fast-forward whenever the story leaves the submarine.
2½ out of 5
Gerard Butler as Captain Joe Glass
Common as RA John Fisk
Gary Oldman as CJCS Charles Donnegan
Linda Cardellini as Jayne Norquist
Michael Nyqvist as Captain Andropov
Alexander Diachenko as President Zakarin
Carter MacIntyre as XO Brian Edwards
Toby Stephens as Bill Beaman
Zane Holtz as Paul Martinelli
Michael Gor as Admiral Dmitri Durov
Directed by Donovan Marsh
Screenplay by Arne L. Schmidt and Jamie Moss