My high school humanities teacher was an adorably quirky woman who had a saying: “The only new invention of the 20th Century was artificial snow. Everything else was done before.” I’m not sure how well that statement holds up to scrutiny, but I do enjoy the sentiment behind it. If what’s past is truly prologue, then our best hope is to refine the story from there. Hunter Killer plays like a poor patchwork of older, better films: It’s low-grade Tom Clancy mixed with watered-down James Bond and just a dash of Crimson Tide. Even the music, a numbing assault of bass-driven synth motifs, sounds a lot like the stuff Hans Zimmer used to crank out during the 90s. And during the final action sequence, I’m pretty sure that snow is all fake.
I swear Hollywood producers get scripts for movies like this out of the attic like Christmas decorations. The clichés twinkle like cheap, flashing lights. For example, every story like this must have multiple scenes in some high-tech situation room. Old white dudes with buzz cuts and clenched jaws stare at flatscreens and shake their heads in disgust. (The studios must have a stable of 20-30 actors they use for all these military brass-types. “Okay, you…you…and you over there, smoking the cigar–you guys are playing the Joint Chiefs, get in here.”) At some point, the shit really hits the fan. I knew the line was coming, because it’s in every movie like this: Gary Oldman looks toward the camera, and growls, “I’ve got to brief the President.” Dun dun dunnnnnnn.
So, the plot…yeah. An American sub is torpedoed, and the first suspect is, of course, the Russian navy. Gerard Butler–whose character is so undercooked we can just call him Scowling Stud–is given command of his own boat and sent to investigate. Gary Oldman–he stomps and barks at subordinates, so he’s Screaming Admiral–plays the American commander who must get a handle on the escalating situation. Scowling Stud finds himself at the epicenter of a global crisis as it becomes the clear that some rogue Russians (another cliché) are staging a coup and framing the Americans. Screaming Admiral sends a group of bearded commandos–we’ll call them Lone Survivors–behind enemy lines to make a daring raid. Scowling Stud tries to work a diplomatic angle and let cooler heads prevail.
The action scenes are fairly well staged and edited. They keep the story somewhat watchable, and maybe even a little exciting every now and then. Some of the digital effects–namely the icebergs and a big explosion at the end–look, well…digital. Playstation-esque. Gerard Butler doesn’t have much material to work with, but he wears a face of determination and focus with great skill. Gary Oldman–dude has played Beethoven, Sid Vicious, Dracula and Winston Churchill, for fuck’s sake–is completely wasted. He stares at classified documents and throws tantrums and that’s pretty much it.
Submarines make killer settings for action movies: A claustrophobic tin can, creaking and shuddering in the deep; frightened sailors wiping beads of sweat from their brows. Some great stories have been built on this–Hunt for Red October, Run Silent, Run Deep, and Das Boot. If you’ve never seen Das Boot, holy hell it’s amazing. Find it and stream it, right now. Hunter Killer doesn’t so much refine any those movies as it just recycles what made them entertaining in the first place. This is a new movie that feels old and tired.