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Gerard Butler
Gerard Butler
Summit Entertainment
 122 Minutes
Directed by: Donovan Marsh
Starring: Gerard Butler, Gary Oldman   
Hunter Killer

There is a time gap between reel life and real life, and, sometimes, in the interim between the filming of a “topical” yet fictional movie and its eventual appearance on theater screens, current events catch up to what’s shown onscreen and make it feel outdated even before the opening credits roll. To some extent, that’s the case in Hunter Killer, a military/political thriller that filmed in the summer of 2016, well before the latest shift in relations between the United States and Russia. In watching the movie, audiences will probably have a tough time accepting some of its premises for various reasons, but, for those willing to suspend disbelief for two hours, the result is a reasonably entertaining B-movie.


Hunter Killer stars Gerard Butler, an actor who is a staple in this type of movie but who is unusually low-key here. He plays Joe Glass, the replacement commander of a U.S. submarine dispatched to waters off the coast of Russia to search for another submarine that mysteriously went missing a few days earlier. What the audience knows, and Glass and U.S. authorities don’t, is that both the U.S. sub and a nearby Russian sub were deliberately sunk, the latter caused by onboard sabotage and the former by an attack from another Russian submarine in the vicinity.


The entire scenario is the brainchild of the Russian defense minister, who has taken the country’s president captive in a coup attempt and hopes to provoke the United States into a retaliation that will start World War III. Fortunately for the cause of world peace, Glass, who earlier informed the crew that he wasn’t an Annapolis man but just a regular Joe Glass who rose through the ranks, doesn’t follow orders blindly or jump to conclusions. Instead, he finds and rescues a handful of Russian sailors still trapped on their downed vessel, including their commander (Michael Nyqvist).


Eventually, the powers-that-be in Washington, led by an admiral (Common) with some common sense and an NSA operative who conveniently has access to all sorts of top-secret surveillance information, figure out what is going on and come up with a plan to send in a team of Navy SEALs (led by Toby Stephens) to rescue the Russian president and rendezvous with Glass’s ship. Meanwhile, Glass has to maneuver his boat safely into the harbor at a heavily fortified and defended naval base where the president is being held. Glass realizes that he doesn’t know the layout of the port well enough to attempt navigating his way through and asks the Russian captain for help.


The audience has to take a number of the premises in Hunter Killer with a massive grain of salt. First, the defense minister (played by Michael Gor, an actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to a heavily sweating Cheech Marin) takes the president prisoner in the one location in the entire country where the Americans have even the remotest chance of pulling off a rescue mission. Second, Glass is conveniently able to rescue from a submarine sunk at near crush depth the only naval officer in the world capable of navigating the harbor safely. While they were at it, Glass and the powers-that-be in Washington should have bought lottery tickets, since they were obviously on a huge lucky streak.


Plausibility isn’t a requirement for a good thriller, of course, as long as the movie goes along at a pace that’s fast enough to keep the audience from asking too many questions, and Hunter Killer succeeds in that regard. The film has a good bit of dialogue for a thriller, as the characters conveniently discuss with each other their options in enough detail to allow the audience to pick up on it. But novice director Donovan Marsh does an excellent job of switching the audience focus between the two main storylines: the undersea action and the topside rescue mission.


If you’ve seen one episode of the current SEAL Team TV show, then you’ll probably be able to guess just how the rescue will play out, with SEALs taking on massive numbers of Russian troops, none of whom can shoot very straight. (In yet another convenient coincidence, one of the Russian president’s security guards was merely wounded when the president was kidnapped and is thus able to add an additional highly trained body into the fray.) The action here isn’t bad, just somewhat routine.


It’s onboard the sub that Hunter Killer shines. Like films set on a train, submarine movies, with their inherently claustrophobic conditions and the extremely high probability that a mistake will prove instantly fatal for everyone on board, are almost always suspenseful to some degree, and Hunter Killer is quite good during the action scenes. Of course, audiences have seen it before (albeit rarely with sophisticated 21st-century weaponry and devices), but Marsh trots out virtually every plot device known. So, we see maneuvering through a minefield, silent running (with a pesky rattling noise onboard), dodging torpedoes, crash-diving to the bottom of the ocean, fire breaking out, and, the oldest of standbys, rising water that threatens to drown a pinned-down sailor. Hunter Killer won’t win any points for originality, but the effects are well done, and the film generates suspense organically.


With that much action and plot in two hours of running time, Hunter Killer had to cut corners somewhere, and, as you might guess, it’s in character development. Almost every character in the film is either highly cliched or entirely cardboard, and many of them are never even addressed by their names. The crew on Glass’s sub are there merely to look worried or offer support as needed and occasionally get into life-threatening situations. Common and Cardellini might as well be labeled “Information Dump Male” and “Information Dump Female.” Other than the defense minister and a bunch of stunt extras in Russian uniforms, the only antagonists in the movie are Glass’s executive officer, whose function is to question every one of Glass’s decisions and be proved wrong every single time, and Gary Oldman as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His function seems to be ranting and raving in typical Oldman dialed-up-to-eleven mode about how Glass could start a nuclear war.


At times, the paper-thin characterizations and ridiculous plot contrivances are silly and even eye-rolling, but they never entirely get in the way of the real strength of Hunter Killer, the non-stop suspense. This movie is a potboiler that has no pretensions of being anything else but an entertaining cinematic thrill ride, and it is helped by some solid technical proficiency. Submarine movies have been around for decades, but Hunter Killer incorporates some modern-day underwater warfare techniques and gadgets I’d never seen before (as shown in the scene below), and they enhanced the excitement (the film is based on a Tom Clancy-like novel that was apparently heavy on technical detail). Even Gerard Butler dials down his gonzo factor to fit the film’s pace and mood. Hunter Killer won’t win any awards or impress many highbrow critics, but it should score a direct hit for viewers looking for some decent escapism.

In this clip, Gerard Butler does battle with a Russian submarine.

Read other reviews of Hunter Killer: 

Hunter Killer (2018) on IMDb