blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

The Hunt for Red October (1990, John McTiernan)

Sean Connery, who’s so important to the workings of Hunt for Red October he could easily be “and special guest star” credit instead of top-billed, has his last scene on the bridge of his ship, giving a very Captain Kirk read of a quote. It’s something about sailing and it’s got to break the cultural barrier and touch the audience too, which says something about the target audience.

The film has an Oppenheimer quote earlier so I thought maybe they’d do something with him again but no. Connery goes out on a Christopher Columbus quote, which dates the thing more than all the Soviet and U.S. Cold War stuff. Though there’s a funny part where Connery mopes to first officer and confident Sam Neill about how the decades-long submarine cold war hasn’t had any battles or memorials, just casualties. So I guess if there were battles and memorials… it’d be… good?

It’s unclear. We don’t get a lot into Connery’s character—that scene ends up being more of a showcase for Neill than anything else—but apparently the core of the character is he wants to fights with sticks and stones, not nukes. Or something. Maybe he’s sad about his wife dying. Everyone acts like he’s super sad about it, but Connery’s barely in the movie and there’s no character development for him.

Meanwhile, Alec Baldwin gets all sorts of pseudo-character development though he’s only around to bring the plot threads together. There are three main ones, with a couple splinters; first, there’s Connery, who’s either defecting from the USSR and giving the United States a fancy new Russian submarine because reasons or he’s lost it and is going to nuke the Eastern Seaboard. Then there’s CIA analyst, desk jockey Baldwin who flies from London to Washington on a hunch for something tangentially related but not enough; luckily the script’s perfectly comfortable being entirely contrived, so pretty soon Baldwin’s on an adventure. Then there’s Scott Glenn and Courtney B. Vance. They’re on an American submarine and they’re tracking Connery’s sub before Baldwin even gets to the plot.

I’d hope someone realized if they were taking it seriously, one of those four actors would have to be the protagonist but Red October does what it can do minimize its need for a protagonist. Sure, it’s Baldwin. But not really at all. And not just because Baldwin’s performance is goofy. And the range of Red October’s performances seem to be who can best combine macho and stoic, with silver fox Connery (it’s a stunning hairpiece) the obvious top dog. McTiernan’s direction of the actors is middling, with no one ever paying off as much as they should. Baldwin excepted because he’s so absurdly miscast. The part’s crap, sure, but McTiernan especially should’ve realized when the male action hero talks to himself during tense situations it needs to create at least an empathetic response.

Instead, Baldwin’s whiney and exasperating and artificial. He does get into his action sequence at the end, however. Shows more energy than anything else he does in the entire film. Rolling with enthusiasm. Literally.

Connery’s got no meat to the part but he’s pretty good. Likable for sure. Red October works with him being omnipresent but not overbearing. Neill’s almost good but the part’s too shallow. The only thing worse than no personality in Red October is some personality dump in exposition. Tim Curry actually makes out best as far as personality just because he’s only got to play annoying and screenwriters Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart can do annoying.

Scott Glenn’s the best of the leads. Even he’s not particularly good, he’s just good for the circumstances. The movie doesn’t need good actors, it just needs competent ones. It’s about a Russian submarine nuking New York—maybe—the stakes are inherent.

James Earl Jones is fine as Baldwin’s boss. Ditto Richard Jordan as a government guy. Fred Thompson’s good, of course, as one of the places Baldwin goes on his quest to find Connery and the grail. Whoops, wrong movie.

Vance is really good, which isn’t easy because the movie makes fun of him for being a Black man who knows classical music and is good at his job. Anthony Peck’s great as Glenn’s first officer.

It’s a big cast and it takes a lot for anyone to be actually bad. Not when Baldwin’s running around making it seem like a car commercial on steroids. Though Joss Ackland’s pretty blah as the Russian ambassador. He’s only got two scenes so who cares.

Technically, Red October starts better than it finishes. McTiernan holds back on the big underwater submarine special effects sequences, making it seem like they’re going to be great. Only then it turns out they don’t have the torpedo composites down so all the best special effects are the submarine suspense ones. Even the peculiar “race through the underwater canyons” sequence has solid effects… it’s just a complete waste of time.

The movie hinges on something it hides from the audience to get from the second act to third so it’s not like Red October’s aiming particularly high anyway.

Basil Poledouris’s music is low mediocre. A big disappointment. Ditto Jan de Bont’s photography; it’s never particularly impressive but there’s some terrible lighting in important scenes—neither McTiernan and de Bont seem to have a handle on the submarine parts of the movie, which seems like it’d be important but whatever.

The Hunt for Red October is a long two hours and fifteen minutes. A compelling lead—any compelling lead—would probably help things quite a bit. It does pick up in the second half, which is quite nice. It’s not like the pace improving makes it obvious the first hour is boring… the first hour is very boring as it unfolds, so the speed-up is welcome and unexpected.

If Baldwin weren’t such a flat lead, who knows. But there’d still be lots of other problems. Like Terence Marsh’s occasionally anachronistic, occasionally silly production design.

Finally, doesn’t matter, but the sound editing and design is excellent.

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