By: Hawk Ripjaw (Four Beers) –
Deep beneath the ice in Russian territory, an American Hunter Killer submarine disappears while shadowing a Russian sub. Rear Admiral John Fisk (Common) of the Department of Defense, determined to find out what happened to it, tracks down the mysterious Joe Glass (Gerard Butler) to lead another submarine team into the area. At the same time, the NSA’s Jayne Norquist (Linda Cardellini) sends a quartet of soldiers to conduct ground recon. It should be noted that the most memorable of these soldiers, a guy named Martinelli, is the modern equivalent of The Naked Gun’s Nordberg. The movie plays it completely seriously, but Martinelli can barely go a few minutes in the movie without something bad happening to him, or just failing in general.
Anyway, Glass is first seen hunting deer in the wilderness with a longbow, with a lack of context that is almost comically threadbare. The fact that Glass lowers his bow when he realizes his prey is accompanied by a family is about as much “characterization” as he gets. It’s not specifically explained why Glass has been sought out for this mission, besides that Glass is The Only Man for the Job™. He also has essentially one default expression in the entire movie.
Once Glass has recruited his crew, they begin searching the waters. After taking down an enemy sub with the help of some of the dodgiest CGI of any mainstream release this year, they come across a downed Russian vessel bearing the signs of sabotage. They rescue its captain, Sergei Andropov (the late Michael Nyqvist), and learn that the Russian President (Alexander Diachenko) has been taken hostage in a coup staged by Russian Defence Minister Dmitri Durov (Mikhail Gorevoy). Durov intends to start a war (or something). To the chagrin of Admiral Charles Donnegan (Gary Oldman, hilariously making the most of his limited screen time by bellowing almost every line at the top of his lungs), Glass must team up with Andropov and the American ground forces to…. rescue the Russian President.
After the slog of the first half of the movie, Hunter Killer really gets going. The final stretch is a wild, preposterous ride packed with close calls and suspenseful confrontations. In fact, it amusingly keeps on going after what you might think is the climax, as if it’s been stockpiling action sequences for the preceding hour and just now unloading as many as it can.
The first genuinely tense sequence involves the American crew of the submarine trusting the Russian captain to guide them through an underwater minefield. This minefield is composed of explosives as well as devices to detect audio, so at certain points everyone on board must maintain complete silence. This scene is a one-two punch of raw tension as well as the pervading suspicion over trusting the Russian guest on the submarine to guide the crew to safety.
This is later followed by a cathartically absurd boots-on-the-ground sequence where the American soldiers bust the Russian President out of captivity. In this moment, the President turns into an action hero in his own right and the evil Russians decide that, fuck it, they’ll kill him too. The less that is said about the editing of the sequence of events in this scene, the better.
There’s also plenty to poke fun at, most notably Oldman’s constant yelling, Butler’s single-digit range of facial expressions, and the tendency for he and Nyqvist to dramatically look into each other’s eyes every few shots during the suspenseful sequences.
But god, is that first half boring. A major part of the problem is that the movie takes way too long to get to the real meat of the plot: that rescue mission. There’s too much inane chitchat, setup, and exposition in the first 45 minutes that could probably have been executed in half the time. There’s also an abundance of footage of soldiers running around and using their gadgets that almost looks like unused footage from an Army commercial. After spending a great deal of time on some conflict, some Department of Defense drama, some espionage, and a bit of mystery, Hunter Killer eventually strolls into the main plot hook. That hook is startlingly fun, and the energy of the finale is equal parts genuine as it is relief from the monotony of the setup.
As fun as the story for Hunter Killer is, the script doesn’t back it up. This is a real stinker, mostly because it appears to assume that its audience is stupid. Some things are explained, while others are not (and when they’re not, it feels like the movie assumes we “won’t get it”). Themes are surface-level and don’t explore the real meat of having adversaries forced to team up. Characters are so thinly drawn that their relationships to each other are genuinely confusing by the end of the film. The dialogue is profoundly unable to give these characters any sort of pathos or growth. Oftentimes the script will drop small bits of character detail: Norquist’s daughter, Glass and his history with Andropov, or the “surprising” fact that one of the American submarine crew speaks Russian–but none of these things really amount to anything beyond that one reference.
Despite being a good time, the final act has some last-ditch attempts at survival that felt like something they should have tried much earlier, and that makes from some some clunkily manufactured moments towards the end of the climax. Of course, by that point the movie has gotten so wild it’s hard to complain about character motivations and decisions.
Submarine movies are few and far between, and there aren’t very many good ones. The best ones really embody the sense of claustrophobia, pervading fear, and dooming paranoia when you lock a bunch of interesting characters into a dangerous underwater tin can. Hunter Killer fails on most fronts: There is no sense of space in the submarine, and the different areas of the craft don’t cohere or feel like part of the same setting. It looks good as a set, but the sensation of being trapped deep beneath the ocean where the pressure is deadly is never truly felt. The effects of this sort of environment are occasionally mentioned, but rarely seen in how the men interact and react. Given the current political climate, a movie featuring a team-up between American and Russian forces should probably have a bit more charge to it beyond the initial mistrust of Andropov by the crew. The overarching political turmoil doesn’t have that same meat to it, so it’s harder to buy into this mission.
Hunter Killer never really escapes its trappings as a Redbox rental, but once you let yourself drift into its weird Clancy-lite, airport novel narrative, it’s surprisingly watchable. It is both too dumb and not dumb enough, stepping into some serious nonsense espionage while frustratingly always keeping one foot on the other side of the line. The concept of two small teams of Americans rescuing the Russian President from a coup behind enemy lines is an enticingly pulpy kernel that the movie feels apprehensive to fully dive into. That said, the back half is solidly entertaining, and there’s a lot of really fun sequences that stack on top of each other in a way that feels kind of like a video game. Given how shallow the movie ends up being, that’s very likely the target audience.
You could do worse for a late-night VOD rental a few months from now. As a theatrical experience, Hunter Killer is not worth a recommendation.
Hunter Killer (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every instance of bad CGI
Take a Drink: every time Butler and Nyqvist stare dramatically at each other
Do a Shot: every time Martinelli fucks up
Take a Drink: whenever the XO complains about something