A film review by Craig J. Koban November 10, 2018


2018, R, 122 mins.


Gary Oldman as CJCS Charles Donnegan  /  Gerard Butler as Capt. Joe Glass  /  Common as RA John Fisk  /  Ryan McPartlin as Matt Johnstone  /  Linda Cardellini as Jane Norquist  /  Michael Nyqvist as Captain Sergi Andropoyov  /  

Directed by Donovan Marsh  /  Written by Arne Schmidt and Jamie Moss, based on the book by Don Keith and George Wallace




All while watching the new political action thriller HUNTER KILLER I was chiefly reminded that submarines aren't inherently very interesting on a visual level.  

With their simplistic shape and relatively slow pace across the screen, there's simply not much dynamism on display, which leaves it up to the director and cast to make what happens inside of the vessel all the more engaging and appealing.  

Based on the book FIRING POINT by George Wallace and Don Keith, HUNTER KILLER manages to find a neat new twist as far as naval thrillers go, which is to its credit, but it sort of loses its way at generating much dramatic interest when it comes to the other two story threads - involving a group of marines on land and politicians and military personnel back home.  More often than not, it feels like it's lazily miming troupes from the Tom Clancy playbook.  HUNTER KILLER is pretty paint-by-numbers as a result (THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER and DAS BOOT it ain't!), but on a level of popcorn B-grade thrills it modestly delivers. 

Director Donovan Marsh does manage to drum up an intriguing whodunnit mystery in the early stages that helps with narrative momentum, even when his ho-hum visual style oftentimes grinds the film to a bit of a halt.  Early on we have a fairly sensational sequence featuring the USS Tampa Bay, a sub patrolling Russian waters that manages to find itself being lured into a trap involving a vast explosion on an enemy sub that seems to have strangely been the product of an inside job.  The USS Tampa is also attacked and plummets down to the ocean floor, with everyone back on the home front fearing that the vessel and crew are dead.  It's that enticing hook of how or what attacked both the Russian and US ships that leads the forward charge of HUNTER KILLER, which in turn prompts the Pentagon to spring into action and discover the real culprits before World War III starts. 



Of course, there's always a grizzly old naval veteran in these types of movies that's brought back into service from his vacation because his services are required in a desperate hour (and because no one else qualified enough is available).  He's Commander Glass (Gerard Butler), who's given the USS Arkansas to quarterback and journey back into the hellishly dangerous waters that the aforementioned Tampa went into and vanished.  Predictably, Admiral Donnegan (a mostly yelling Gary Oldman) is desperately trying to make sense of the global madness that could erupt from this situation, and joining him to monitor is Rear Admiral Fisk (Common) and NSA analyst Norquist (Linda Cardellini), the latter two of which decide to send in a Navy SEAL team to sneak into a small Russian town to monitor the Russian President, who has oddly been taking prisoner by a group of rogue agents.  Realizing that a coup d'etat is eminent, all the Americans decide to not only rescue the Russian President, but also the  sub captain that survived the explosion that opened the film (played by the late Michael Nyqvist), leaving everyone on both sides feeling beyond edgy. 

HUNTER KILLER, as previously mentioned, at least deserves some points for originality when it comes to trying to tie together three divergent story threads from three highly unique prerogatives in order to create some semblance of a unifying whole.  It's not ostensibly a submarine thriller (as its somewhat false marketing campaign as led you all to believe).  It's an interesting dynamic to see how the men and women inside the Arkansas, the Pentagon leaders, and the SEALs on land all somehow conspire together to ensure that an already dicey situation doesn't escalate to all out war.  And it's through these three story arcs where we get a greater understanding of the Russian coup itself, which threatens peace on multiple geopolitical levels.  There's ample suspense, for example, in Glass' crew trying to understand his rationale for bringing on board the fallen Russian captain, seeing as most of them believe him to be the enemy and a security risk.  Also risky is the SEAL team's attempts to rescue the incarcerated and badly injured Russian President without tipping off to the world that the US is attacking their country. 

The performances contained within are a mixed bagged, with some being reliably stalwart, such as Butler, who has the commanding physical screen presence to make a credibly authoritative sub captain (his character, on paper, doesn't altogether have much back story or personality, but Butler makes him a quietly powerful figurehead nevertheless).  I also like Nyqvist (who died before this film was released), who gives his Russian captain enthralling layers as a strong willed silent type that plays nicely off of Butler's on-screen machismo.  I only wished that some of the other actors assembled here were given more to do with better/juicier parts.  Gary Oldman's Joint Chiefs of Staff role feels underwritten and sort of wastes the recent Oscar winner's supreme talents, whereas other actors like Common and Cardellini spend most of the time looking at large computer screens while appearing alarmed.  The actors portraying the SEALS get the real short end of the stick, playing cardboard cutout character stock types that feel ripped from countless other films. 

But, yes, the Russian President and downed Russian sub captain extraction scenes are genuinely well oiled and tension filled (Marsh does have, though, trouble with basic action staging and choreography, but these scenes still pack a reasonable visceral punch).  I think what ultimately does HUNTER KILLER in is the overreaching blandness of the whole enterprise (outside, of course, of is enthralling premise).  The film is pretty perfunctory and on genre autopilot when it taps into themes of patriotism, renewed Cold War tensions, and noble minded men of honor doing what's right in their hearts even when their brains are telling them otherwise.  The overall formulaic approach here feels like IT regurgitates extras from other better films of its ilk, not to mention, that when all is said and done, only one of the three story arcs is truly gripping.  The SEAL subplot hits every convention in the men on a mission playbook, whereas the Pentagon scenes are arguably just as obligatory and dramatically inert. 

I want to recommend HUNTER KILLER as a mostly enjoyable sub thriller that's easily digestible, but easily forgotten days after seeing it, almost like a direct-to-video title that used to occupy video store shelves in their second tier section next to the high marquee rentals.  Unfortunately, there's simply not enough meat on this film's bones to warrant theatrical ticket price, which is exacerbated by the fact that it takes itself way, way too seriously as a solemn minded, high tech naval thriller with big topical ideas when it frequently strains credulity (two sequences involving two sets of characters under threat of heavy fire being rescued at the very last minute are eye rollingly groan inducing).  HUNTER KILLER certainly doesn't exist in the same upper echelon of the best, say, Jack Ryan political thrillers or military themed action pictures, but it's worthy of a rental, which makes my two and half star review feel like a healthy compromise. 

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