The Hunt for Red October (1990)

When it’s on: Saturday, 18 July (10.15 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

I once read a Tom Clancy novel, back when his works were seen as the quintessential fiction for men. It was a struggle. I’d never known that it was possible to talk about the features of some military hardware for several pages, but Clancy did it, loads, and the book, Clear and Present Danger, could not be finished too quickly.

It’s therefore fortunate that the film adaptations, all five Jack Ryan stories, have thrown out much of the ‘technoporn’ and focused instead on the thriller element of these tales. The first, 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, may be the best of the bunch, a taut yarn about Cold War politics that drips with tension and handles swathes of plot and characterisation deftly.

The film was directed by John McTiernan, at the time coming off two considerable successes in Predator and Die Hard, the latter considered a high watermark in high concept action cinema. One of the things that made it work so well was that McTiernan took time to develop its story, introducing the characters and giving them motivation, before letting the gun play, stunts and fighting take over, making us care about what was happening and appreciating the stakes involved. It was fine grounding for The Hunt for Red October, a film that depends upon considerable amounts of setting up.

It stars Alec Baldwin as Ryan, a young CIA analyst who, in 1984, unconvers the significance of a newly developed Russian nuclear submarine, that it can move through the oceans more or less silently and therefore has the capacity to ‘sneak up’ on America. Handily, Ryan also knows all about the boat’s captain, Marko Ramius, a longstanding and respected seaman within the Soviet hierarchy who he believes is about to defect rather than attack. He’s right. The plot focus on his efforts to communicate with Ramius before the presence of Red October in a threatening position pre-empts hostilities between the superpowers.

Ramius is played by Sean Connery, by now the Academy Award winning actor who was entering a potentially interesting phase in his career playing older characters. Connery was famous enough to not even attempt a Russian accent, playing the only Scottish Lithuanian in celluloid history whilst the likes of Sam Neill as members of his crew work on their Slavic. Even if he had no time for perfecting dialects, Connery got by on sheer charisma, effortlessly essaying Ramius as a great captain audacious enough to pull off his desperate defection. He even let the Soviet High Command know of his intentions, prompting a sea chase across the North Atlantic in which every available Russian vessel attempts to smoke out the Red October.

Also in the mix is the Dallas, an American submarine commanded by Scott Glenn that realises something is happening and pursues what turns out to Red October, making it the unlikely place for Ryan to join in his efforts to reach out to Ramius. The main threat comes from Stellan Skarsgard’s Russian sub, the Konovalov, which also gives chase and does most of the firing.

The one thing that really lets the film down are the underwater action scenes. Murky shots of submarines floating through the depths appear as gloomy submerged turds, whilst the missiles and countermeasures deployed make use of early CGI, which these days appears to be rather primitive. These scenes are mercifully sparing. More time is spent on the decks, especially Ramius’s, a wonderland of dials and flashing lights that is apparently far more interesting than what these things really look like. At the centre of it all is Connery, spouting the wisdom of his many years in service and outwitting his adversaries. There are a couple of great moments when Red October is being fired upon, the closeness of the torpedoes defined by beeping that gets intermittently more frequent as it approaches, while Ramius uses his experience and wiliness to overcome them.

Both Connery and Baldwin play characters who think laterally, beating those around them in terms of their ingenuity and resourcefulness. For long swathes of red October, Ryan is on the right track about Ramius and nobody believes him, because the way he sees things is completely unprecedented but the idea is that only he and the Russian think so far outside the box and are therefore kindred spirits of a sort. Both are at their best in the cramped surroundings of their submarines, thin corridors and claustrophobia adding to the suspense of their situation. Their story is only marginally better than the fun diplomacy conducted in Washington, Richard Jordan and Joss Ackland’s Russian attache exchanging witty barbs as they attempt to get the better of each other and demonstrating the sort of edgy affection that you’d get from old adversaries. And then there’s James Earl Jones as Ryan’s superior, Admiral Greer. Baldwin only starred in one Jack Ryan film but Jones’s services were retained, that deep sonorous voice matched by a wry, larger than life presence that strikes a note of authenticity within the corridors of supreme military personnel.

A Cold War film made in 1990 might sound like it’s missed the boat somewhat, with Glasnost in the air and the relations between America and Russia changed forever. And really, a movie that features few action scenes and runs for longer than two hours sounds a bit of a stretch. But it’s tense, really tense, the stakes high and escalating all along as everyone involved knows and makes clear what’s involved and the potential consequences if they misstep. I like the bits where Red October is damaged, the consequence of a saboteur being on board; at these moments, the essential fragility of being deep beneath the ocean inside a tin can is palpable.

I don’t really know which of the two great submarine-based thrillers of the 1990s I prefer – this, or Crimson Tide, which came out five years down the line. Both feature great supporting casts and two excellent lead actors. I certainly can’t recall Baldwin being better than he is here, a great star making turn hinting at the sort of future greatness that he never quite realised. I also really like Neill’s character, the very loyal second in command who obeys Ramius slavishly, defends him to other crew members when the captain appears to be defying all logic, and getting a great scene when he reveals to Ramius that he’s looking forward to living in Montana. It features some lovely cinematography from future director Jan de Bont, who keeps his camera tilted to film the characters at askew angles and emphasise the tension, also the sense of being closed in. Good stuff.

The Hunt for Red October: ****

12 Replies to “The Hunt for Red October (1990)”

  1. It’s hard to beat a good submarine movie and this is an especially enjoyable one. I have to agree with your comments on Clancy’s books – I’ve read three or four myself, and they do go on far too much about the tech aspects, actually they go a lot period. I also think this is probably the best of the adaptations.
    The casting is excellent and the cinematography and direction hit the spot.

    1. Thanks Colin. I quite like the Harrison Ford ones also, but Red October I admire for setting up a tense situation and then just turning the screw, with the focus ever on Baldwin and Connery’s characters. And you’re dead right about submarine pictures – so claustrophobic.

      1. I thought the Ford versions were OK but not a patch on this – I think Connery and the submarine setting elevate the movie.

  2. Much as I admire Gene hackman, I much prefer this to CRIMSON TIDE – the politics are subtler (and findamentally less reactionary / hawkish) and I think the script is much cleverer too (it also doesn’t feel like an uncreditd remake of RUN SILENT RUN DEEP 🙂 ). I agree, McTiernan is a master at this kind of stuff and I think his skill is especially evident in the quieter moments, like Neill talking about his rabbit farm or Thompson telling us about Ryan spending over a year in traction) – these are as memorable i think as the terrific action setpieces.

    1. Thanks Sergio. I am tempted to give CRIMSON TIDE another go after watching this again, however it’s a DVD I lent to a friend many moons ago and have never had back so there’s a bit of resentment about purchasing it again, and was it really that good in the first place? I think you’re right though, the script in this one is a lot more intelligent, the tension built is a smarter way all told and with a greater sense of ‘this could really happen, almost’ about it. Then again, Tony Scott was never the subtlest craftsman, was he? One of my favourite aspects of Crimson was the amount characters sweated as the suspense mounted – Viggo Mortensen looked as though he lost half his body weight in that film!

      1. Scott made some fascinating changes to his style late in his career with films like MAN ON FIRE and DOMINO which i thought were really impressive. i ended up re-watching RED OCTOBER yesterday (yes, on Blu-ray 🙂 ) and I think it holds up – CRIMSON TIDE I have always liked less though there is lots to enjoy but it is a very typical example of the overblown Jerry Bruckheimer high concept style

      2. Yet to see DOMINO, but I’ll give it a go. I should be fully Blu Ray’d up within a few weeks, that and the Rathbone-Bruce set 🙂

      3. Hmmmm, I have many of them on DVD already, but I just love Universal horror and will definitely check out what’s on offer. I suspect that’s going to be the main trap – not replacing titles with HD versions just for the sake of it – but I’m sure I’ll survive 😉

      4. Yes, I hate the idea of double dipping so I do have to stop myself – but so much great stuff has come out from the likes of Arrow (especially their Bava and De Palma releases), Eureka and the improvement in picture quality can be really startling – PSYCHO on Blu-ray is an absolute revelation!

      5. The Arrow stuff does look great, Masters of Cinema also, in fact I can see myself building a happy collection of MoC releases and catching up with some beautifully restored classics. The want list grows…

      6. The Arrow release of OBSESSION is especially worthwhile as all previous editions have been disappointing and the inclusion of the original screenplay, with Schrader’s original ending makes for fascinating reading (very glad they didn;t go with iut however).

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